Field Notes – February 2020
Click on photo to expand image.
09 Feb 2020
Today was the first break in weather we’ve had for the month of February. We were excited to survey and see who was still hanging around and who might be new. Although the plane couldn’t survey until now due to low cloud ceilings and high wind gusts, we knew right whales were still streaming into the bay because of the right whales being spotted from shore! There have been sightings reported most days from Race Point and Herring Cove beaches in Provincetown. Many times, these whales were putting on a show in surface active groups and then turning to the skim feeding once they got their fill of social time.
Starting off out of Provincetown, we flew north to south. We found some right whales and even a handful of fin whales 5-8 miles off of Ptown. We broke on any sightings of other species today to investigate body condition. We were looking for an emaciated humpback that had live-stranded in Wellfleet Harbor the day before. After it refloated overnight during the high tide, we didn’t know if it was free-swimming or been pushed ashore in another nearby beach so we kept our eyes peeled. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding that or any other humpback but we did manage to find more right whales in the southern half of the bay.
This was our second 2-flight survey this season; meaning, we needed to refuel in order to finish our coverage of the entire bay. As right whale abundance in the bay is expected to increase from here, we expect the rest of the surveys in February, March and April will also require a refueling stop.
We identified 22 right whales in all but we were unable to photograph a couple of whales due to daylight restrictions. We found six new whales for the season, two of which were Fiddle (#1121) and Silt (#1817); both are adults (a male and female, respectively) and frequent visitors to CCB. Three of the other new whales were in a surface active group (SAG) with Tripelago (#2614) and Manta (#1507).
Tripelago appeared to be the focal animal, where the others in the group were stroking her and jockeying into position to be next to her while she remained belly up at the surface for a large portion of time. Others in the SAG included the three newcomers: #4190, a female that just came of the age to be considered an adult; #3295 and #3504 both adult males. After totaling our tallies, we’re up to 43 individuals sighted in Cape Cod Bay so far this season (with 95 already ID’d by CCS in adjacent waters). Bring on the influx!
15 February 2020
The aerial survey team got up to survey again this Saturday and found 22 right whales in Cape Cod Bay. The number and distribution of these whales were pretty similar to our last flight, but now that we are working on matching these animals we have found that many of them differ from those that we had on February 9. We have even found that five of these 22 animals were previously undocumented in Cape Cod Bay this year.
We continued to see surface active groups (SAGs) in Cape Cod Bay this flight. We documented a total of four SAGs, which involved about half of the total individuals we counted. After having finished documenting one SAG, we noticed another right whale headed directly towards this group and we went to investigate. Once we could see it better, we noticed it was blowing streams of bubbles by exhaling underwater and was repeating it again and again. It would disappear below the surface, but we could always tell where it was based on these streams of bubbles. None of us had ever seen so many underwater exhalations in such a short time span, and found it pretty fun to watch.
This whale, who we have identified as #4520, is the 2015 calf of #1620 “Mantis” and has been documented in Cape Cod Bay each year since her birth. We suspect that all of that bubble blowing had something to do with the fact that she was approaching and likely later joined the SAG we had been previously documenting. Interestingly enough the next whale we documented after #4520 was “Mantis” #1620, her mother. We did not observe any kind of interaction between these whales as they were some distance apart, but it makes us wonder if they are aware of one another’s presence….they must be.
We made our way north through Cape Cod Bay, and after having documented upwards of 18 whales, noticed a giant splash way to the south. This was breach….and looking at our computer screen we realized it was in an area we hadn’t yet seen any whales, so off we went about 3 miles back to ground we had covered already. The whale continued to breach as we approached, but unfortunately stopped by the time we got there. The whale was #2602 “Marble”, and definitely new for the day and the season.
Some of the other animals we have identified so far are #1507 “Manta”, an adult male and of no relation to previously documented “Mantis”, and another male #1720. This is the first time we have sighted #1720 in Cape Cod Bay this year, but he has been coming here pretty consistently since 2008. He is relatively old, having first been seen at unknown age in 1987, and is very unique looking. He has quite a spotted appearance we would very much like for him to be named “Vinnie” since his body resembles the “Starry Night” painting by the famous Vincent van Gogh. We will see what happens when we submit him for the right whale naming procedure with the NARW Consortium this fall.
29 February 2020
Today marked two weeks of us being unable to fly due to weather- so with a short weather window we decided to take off early (0715) on this Saturday to survey Cape Cod Bay.
Our research vessel, R/V Shearwater has been able to fill in some gaps, providing right whale IDs on days it was too foggy/cloudy to fly. However, they hadn’t covered the western and southern portions of the bay which is why we decided to take advantage of the time we had and fly south to north. We found our first right whales on track line 14, about 3 nm north of Mayflower Beach in Dennis, where five individuals were in a medium energy surface active group (SAG).
That was the beginning of a very busy day. We sighted a total of 49 right whales throughout the bay, with most of them in the middle to northeastern sections of Cape Cod Bay either feeding or in a SAG. However, we did record another five whales in a SAG and four singletons about 1 nm east of the Gurnet in Duxbury, the only sightings in the western part that day and visible from shore.
We had a mix of old and new whales on this flight, which is always interesting to discover. One whale we have sighted this season already is 12 year old female #3823, “Sundog,” named for a her circular scar on head that looks like a sundog, and her blinding scars in general on her peduncle and leading edge of flukes. She gained her scars from an entanglement first observed in September 2016, when she was carrying gear about 5 miles off Provincetown. Fortunately our team MAER responded were able to successfully disentangle her, which was confirmed the following March. Despite the rough appearance she appears to be healing and hopefully will have a calf in the upcoming seasons.
As for new whales, we sighted two in particular that caused some concern. The first is juvenile male #4440. #4440 is the 2014 calf of #2040 “Naevus,” and was brought to Cape Cod Bay his calf year and has been seen in our waters every season since. Last summer he was observed entangled in the Gulf of St Lawrence with extensive wounds on his peduncle. The Campobello Whale Rescue Team responded on multiple days and were able to cut a line in such a way that changed the configuration and allowed #4440 to shed the rest of the gear. Though his wounds still look raw, he was observed feeding on Saturday and hopefully is on the mend.
The other worrisome individual we sighted was adult male #1017. This old dude was first seen in 1980 at an unknown age, making him at least 40 years old! On Saturday he was a participant in one of the SAGs, which gave us great looks because of his surface rolling and turning, and allowed us to see new marks cause by a boat propeller on his flank. To our knowledge he was most recently seen in summer 2019, and at that point did not have those injuries. We are hoping to see him from the research vessel to get a better idea of how deep they run and how fresh they look up close.
Nearly all of our sightings were difficult to work since winds were so high, which affected some sea state, but more so, our circling. What was supposed to be a short day ended up being an 8 hour flight, the longest we have flown this season. Despite the difficulty it was great that we were able to survey and sight four dozen right whales, especially since it may be another week before we’re able to survey again.