Field Notes – January 2020
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06 January 2020
The Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies has only recently started the 2020 season with the full team. However, we did manage to complete some exploratory surveys prior to the official start of the season, thanks to funding by the Disney Conservation Fund and the 1,000 friends of Right Whales funding initiative. Prior to January we were able to fly exploratory surveys this past fall. We flew Jeffreys Ledge (off New Hampshire) in October, November, and December, Cape Cod Bay in December (three flights), and an Eastern Outer Shore survey in December.
The first right whale we documented was on Jeffreys on that first flight: EGNO 4095, an individual of unknown age and sex that was first seen in 2010. We last saw this whale in the spring of 2019. This whale’s sighting history is short, but interestingly enough it was seen by our team on Jeffreys Ledge back in November 2011!
We also had a brief directed flight south of Nantucket to verify sightings seen from shore. In short order we had 14 individuals sighted all within a mile of shore, the majority of which were seen in surface active groups. By documenting these individuals, NOAA was able to issue a Dynamic Management Area that puts out a notice to mariners and asks ships to slow their speeds to less than 10 knots while transiting through the area.
Our first flight of 2020 was on Monday 06 January, when we surveyed Cape Cod Bay. We took off quite early because of forecasted poor weather, and were pleasantly surprised at how nice the sea state and sightings conditions were. We found two right whales in the middle of the bay a few miles apart: EGNO 2480 (pictured above) and CT01MB15.
EGNO 2480 (above, right) is an adult of unknown sex who was first documented in 1994, and then not again until 2001! It was first seen in Cape Cod Bay in 2016, has been seen every year since, and was also documented early last season as well (first sighted in December 2018 and last end of March 2019).
CT01MB15 (middle, right) is an intermatch code given to the individual while it awaits being given a catalog number. The code dictates it being the first intermatch whale (01) with a continuous callosity (CT), in Massachusetts Bay (MB) in 2015. We have seen it consistently since 2017, but this is the first time we have documented it prior to March.
Before finishing our survey, we also saw some lunge feeding fin whales, a minke whale, and a handful of seals. All in all a great first flight to kick off the 2020 season!
18 January 2020
This is our second completed flight of the new decade, and we are happy to report that we found ten right whales in Cape Cod Bay!
Weather this time of year can be challenging, and these last couple of weeks have been no exception. On the previously completed survey on 06 January 2020, we documented two right whales: EGNO 4550 and 2480. Since then we have not been able to fly for nearly two weeks; however, we have had shore sightings reported to us in the interim. Based on the shore sightings, we had hopes of spotting at least a few new individuals.
We flew Cape Cod Bay south to north, and the first half of the survey was pretty quiet with only two minke whales sighted off Provincetown. Despite the chilly temperatures, we had beautiful sighting conditions. However, it took until nearly halfway through our survey (track line 8) before we finally found our first two right whales of the day: adult males EGNO 3060 and 3629. EGNO 3060 dove very shortly after reaching them so we decided to take the time and wait for both to surface to get better images and to get an idea of dive times. We waited 30 minutes before they reappeared meaning it was very possible that, given we fly at 100 knots and cover about 167 feet per second, not all right whales were being sighted.
After we successfully documented this pair we continued on our survey, and on the next track line nearly due north were two singletons: EGNO 3360 “Horton” and 2705 “Silver.” Horton is an adult female first seen in 2003, was first documented in the bay in 2008 and has been seen here nearly every year since. A very small scar on her head prompted the name Horton, the Dr. Seuss character who carried a world
that was the size of a speck. She has given birth to at least two calves, and unfortunately, is very recognizable due to her severe peduncle scarring from a former entanglement in gear. Silver is an adult male who was born in 1997, and is distinct for two reasons: 1. he has a unique scar on the left side of his head and 2. he is missing nearly all of his left fluke. He was seen in Cape Cod Bay as a yearling, but is a fairly sporadic visitor otherwise; we did not document him in 2018 and only on one day in 2019.
We saw two surface active groups (SAG) which are always exciting to witness, each containing three adult right whales. One was even visible from the beach and we were told after that they drew quite a crowd. The first SAG, sighted further offshore, involved two females EGNO 3946 and 3780 and one male 3712. The inshore SAG was just off Herring Cove and, interestingly, this trio was made up of all adult males EGNO 1270, 1419, and 2743.
All ten of these whales are new for us this season. We are looking forward to better weather forecasts ahead to see who else we will find.
January 22 & 24, 2020
The gorgeous weather we had last week allowed the right whale team to get out in the field more than we thought we might this January. On Wednesday, the aerial team completed a survey south of Nantucket and documented at least 60 right whales, and on Friday both the plane and vessel surveyed Cape Cod Bay documenting at least 22 right whales. All of this took place in unseasonably calm seas, making the surveys much easier than is typical for this time of year.
For the past several years, our colleagues have been documenting large aggregations of right whales feeding South of Nantucket and especially during the winter months. Unfortunately, this winter didn’t allow for many surveys in that area. We felt that it was important to try to document as many of these animals as possible, so in coordination with colleagues at NOAA and New England Aquarium, we designed a survey to cover that area.
Our survey found right whales in a loose group about thirty miles south of Nantucket; many of whom were in Surface Active Groups (SAGs). We were really excited to find some familiar whales that we often see in Cape Cod Bay. Among these were EGNOs 2440 “Shackleton”, 2681 “Hyphen”, 3301 “Neptune”, 1627 “Wavy Gravy”, and 3230 “Infinity”.
One of the SAGs that we documented included a young whale, EGNO 4601 “Gully” who has yet to be documented in Cape Cod Bay. Gully, the 2016 calf of Harmonia, survived an entanglement in the summer of 2018 and can now be easily recognized by the deep wound across his or her head. This wound was the reasoning behind the name Gully which was assigned last fall. We are expecting that many of these whales from south of Nantucket will eventually make their way north into Cape Cod Bay later in the season.
On Friday, the aerial and vessel teams worked in glassy calm seas with subsurface and skim feeding right whales. Both the conditions and whale behavior were more like April than January! The plane found 18 right whales including EGNOs 3420 “Platypus” and 1507 “Manta”. Last season Platypus was sighted in December and then in every month through April. We also saw her in multiple SAGs last year and had hoped that she would have a calf this year… we even bet on it. So although we were happy to see Platypus, we were also a little disappointed that she isn’t down in Florida and Georgia having a calf. We weren’t surprised to see Manta, a 35-year-old male, as he has been the most regularly sighted whale in Cape Cod Bay since our surveys began in 1998. We found him in a SAG with four other whales in the southern portion of the bay.
While the plane was flying overhead at 100 knots, the Habitat team aboard the R/V Shearwater slowly cruised the waters of Cape Cod Bay, sampling for plankton and surveying for whales. They were able to document 6 right whales, 4 of which were not sighted by the plane. EGNOs 2614 “Tripelago” and 3790 were among those only documented by the R/V Shearwater. Tripelago is a 23-year-old female who last had a calf in 2017. She was named for the group of three islands on the top of her head that could be referred to as an archipelago. EGNO 3790 is a female born in 2007 who has not yet had a calf. She is regularly seen in Cape Cod Bay but it is the first time we have documented her this year.
Traveling at such speed, it isn’t unusual for the plane to miss whales, especially when they are diving. It is however very interesting when the boat is able to document those that the plane has missed. After such a productive week, we are settling in back at the lab, processing all of data that we gathered. As always, we’re watching the weather to see when we might get out again soon.
31 January 2020
We flew another aerial survey on the last Friday of the month, somewhat unexpectedly. We were hoping to wait until the first week of February for our next flight; however, when the forecast became increasingly volatile we had a last minute scramble to take advantage of Friday’s weather window. Although the winds and gusts were increasing throughout the day, we managed to spot and identify right whales in the middle third of the bay. Some were close to Sandy Neck in the southern portion, and others were halfway between Manomet and Truro.
Knowing we likely missed a number of individuals, we did manage to spot six new animals for the season. Among these were some old favorites like Gemini (#1150) and Prescott (#2271). These two old males are common visitors to the bay, some years showing up in January or February, and other years waiting a little longer into the winter season to show up in March or April. Prescott’s abscess is still visible, but does not appear as large as we have seen in sightings from last year.
Other familiar faces among the new whales included Butterfly (#1425), Swan (#2340), and #3370. Interestingly, #3370 calved in 2019, and was not documented bringing her calf into Cape Cod Bay (nor her previous one in 2009). Though we missed her last year, we are happy to report she was feeding and looked to be in pretty good condition for having just weaned a calf in the last few months.
The forecast doesn’t look promising for the next 10 days but we’ll be up again to survey from the skies as soon as we get a break again.