Field Notes – March 2020
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06 March 2020
On Friday, we had our earliest start so far this season. We knew the wind was coming up around noon, so we had to make hay while the sun shone. Taking off at 7 AM, we started surveying Cape Cod Bay (CCB) from north to south.
We found our first right whales a few minutes into our first track line. From there it was mostly quiet, save for a few fin whales feeding in the west. However, once we got to the beginning of track 5, we found almost 50 right whales feeding offshore of Truro and Wellfleet. Almost all were skim feeding, unfortunately too far to be visible from shore.
Here we found a mix of new and old whales for this season. Still hanging around are Manta (#1507), Mantis (#1620) and #3991. Some of our notable newbies were #3333 and Aries (#2215). #3333 is a male born in 2003 to #1233. He is very identifiable, mainly due to his scarring. He was seen carrying rope down off of the southeast US in January 2008; luckily, he managed to shed that gear by the time he was sighted up in northern waters in May 2008. He didn’t escape unscathed though; the scars he bears on his tailstock flukes, and across his head are a testament to the struggle he faced with that rope. We are always happy to see him in the bay, first because it enabled us to watch his injuries heal over time, but now because he’s so noticeable.
Aries (#2215) on the other hand, another new whale to the bay this season, seems to be declining. He looked pale grey and skinny from the plane, so we needed to drop down in altitude to try to get better pictures for a health assessment. Unfortunately, by the time we spotted Aries, the wind had picked up and so had the chop on the water, making circling difficult and clear photographs for the short periods he was at the surface a challenge.
Aries, an older male, was born in 1992 to #1315. He was sighted last year and we remarked on his decline then. He was also spotted on January 22nd, 2020 by our team in a pile of whales south of Nantucket. He didn’t look great during that sighting, having the furrows called “rake marks” near his blow holes, usually an early indicator of poor health. We’re hoping he sticks around for at least a couple of weeks so we can continue to get better documentation of his condition and hopefully start to see a rebound as he gets his fill of food here in CCB.
We called the survey shortly after leaving Aries, as we needed to refuel. We knew by the time we managed to refuel and get back in the air, the wind conditions would have made the last 6 track lines unworkable for a survey, never mind circling any animals we were lucky enough to detect, so we headed home and started the long work of processing our data. We are hoping to get a full bay survey in within the next week to better assess how many whales are in CCB, but we know there’s likely way more than the 50 we managed to spot today.
March 11 & 12, 2020
The aerial survey team got in a couple of good flights with calmer winds. We were able to survey both Cape Cod Bay and the Eastern Shore on back to back days giving us a general idea of what is happening in the surrounding waters.
On Wednesday March 11 we waited for the winds to die down a little before taking off for our survey of the Eastern Outer Shore. Although the waters were calm and we felt that we would have seen any animals that were at the surface, our survey was very uneventful. Throughout the twelve track lines, we only documented one fin whale and twelve Atlantic white-sided dolphins, which was rather quiet compared to similar surveys we have done in previous years where we have found more dolphins and baleen whales and occasionally right whales.
Once we had completed our survey East of Cape Cod, we covered the five remaining track lines in Cape Cod Bay that we were unable to complete on our previous survey on March 6. We expected to find a few right whales, but had no luck even though sighting conditions were fantastic. We headed back towards Provincetown, and found the first right whales of the day just minutes before we landed. We stopped and documented this group of 13 skim and subsurface feeding animals and even recorded some new individuals for the season. We found #1121 “Minnow”, and #1403 “Meridian”, both adult males who were first documented in the 1980s! They are both easy for us to identify thanks to obvious markings on their heads. We also documented #3260 “Skittle” and #2602 “Marble” who have each been previously documented in the bay this season.
We flew again on Thursday March 12 to fully survey Cape Cod Bay, finding 57 individual right whales. Most of these were on the east side of Cape Cod Bay and were feeding at the surface in small groups, making them easy to spot. One whale even breached repeatedly, making it especially easy to see. We tried to be quick and get a photo of this, but as is typical, the whale was faster than the photographer and we only managed a photo of the landing. We identified this breaching animal as #4633, a young female born in 2016 who was brought to Cape Cod Bay by her mom #1233, and who has been coming to the bay ever since.
We also found a number of new individuals for the season including some of our very favorites; #3530 “Ruffian” and #2440 “Shackleton”. Both of these males are easily identified due to scars on their bodies. “Ruffian” is a survivor of at least two major entanglements has one especially large scar on his back, making him impossible to miss from the plane; “Shackleton” has a series of propeller scars on his left body from an excursion up the Delaware River when he was just a year old.
We are still in the process of matching many of these whales, but we have already identified a few more favorites; #3760 “Callosity Back”, #3623 “Bongo”, #3040 “Aviator” and #2930 “Specs”. From talking to our colleagues on the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s right whale team, we know that many of the new whales we are seeing in Cape Cod Bay have come up from an aggregation south of Nantucket. We love monitoring the movements of these animals and are looking forward to what we find on our next survey.
March 16, 2020
March has historically been a transitional time for our right whale sightings; sometimes we see a gradual increase of whales in the bay, occasionally the peak of the season, and now and then we document a decline. On the previous flight we documented close to 60 individual right whales, which is similar to what we saw last season but overall relatively high for a March survey day. It had been four days since then, and we did not know what to expect.
We began our Cape Cod Bay flight in the north, and unfortunately conditions were not initially great because of high winds. We were surveying in high sea states (4- 5), which means the long white caps and foam kept catching our eyes and subsurface animals were particularly difficult to spot. Nevertheless we were able to complete the survey after finding 25 right whales, three fin whales, dolphins, seals, and even two humpbacks who were busy bubble-net feeding on the ocean side.
The right whales were still mostly concentrated in the northeast area of Cape Cod Bay but there were some scattered in the south, including an aggregation of nine animals who were subsurface feeding. These were quite stationary while feeding, but were difficult to photograph because of their depth and the sea state.
While most were whales we have already seen in the bay this season we did document some newcomers, including #2048, #3401 “Tux” and #4340. EGNO 2048 is an adult male born in 1990, making him 20 years old. In recent years we haven’t seen him very often, and when we do it’s for a day or two per season. Tux, on the other hand, is a Cape Cod Bay regular. He was born in 2004, to #1701 “Aphrodite,’ who has also been seen in the bay this year. He has been documented in the bay nearly every year since 2011. On this sighting he was coordinated feeding with #2413 “Nauset,” and it’s great that there still seems to be a solid food resource.
Last, but not least, is #4340 who holds a place near and dear to my heart. This 7 year old female is the infamous calf of #1140 “Wart” who was observed with her mom at a few weeks old off the Pilgrim Power Plant in January 2013, likely after being born in our northern waters. She was the first calf I observed, and the youngest I have yet to see. She has visited the bay every year of her life except for 2019, but unfortunately her mother has not been sighted since 2014.
A previously sighted individual who was breaching like no one was watching, was adult male #3623 “Bongo.”
“Bongo” was born in 2006 to #2123 Couplet- a mother of five known calves who was found dead in 2017 off Cape Cod. Bongo’s breach was visible from miles away, and we were pretty stoked that he did not stop before we got into the photographing position. It is the first legitimate breaching I have been able to photograph, which shows you the rarity of the occurrence.
We are approaching the traditional height of our season, but due to the pandemic there is much uncertainty about our future surveys. We will continue to update as much as possible and in the meantime hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during this stressful time.
18 March 2020
On Wednesday March 18th, the aerial survey team was up and flying over Cape Cod Bay once again. With our previous flight on March 16th sighting a lower number of whales (though in marginal conditions), we were left wondering what was really going on in Cape Cod Bay. Today, we had excellent conditions, and sightings of 23 individual whales. This is lower than some of our previous flights, but we aren’t worried. We have seen this kind of decline in numbers at this time of year in previous seasons.
Feeding at or just below the surface seemed to be what all of the whales were doing on today’s flight. We love it when the whales are skim feeding because it makes them really easy to photograph since their head, the part that we use to identify them, is constantly at the surface. Today we had a little bit of skim feeding, but it felt like most of the time the whales were feeding just below the surface. It’s tough for us because we can see the whales the entire time, but we often have to spend a long time waiting for them to breathe. It’s pretty exciting in the plane when they finally do decide to breathe and we can get our photos, leaving them to scoot along feeding below the surface while we continue on with our survey. Today amongst all of the subsurface feeding we also had some side feeding and a SAG.
Many of the whales that we had on today’s flight were individuals that we had previously documented this season who have continued to feed in Cape Cod Bay. Some of our favourites included #3230 “Infinity”, #3760 “Callosity Back” and #3401 “Tux”. We found #1204, who was a mom last year, looking healthy and doing well. We have already documented her now independent 2019 calf in Cape Cod Bay this year. It also looks to be healthy and doing well. We had some excitement when we found #4020 “Nymph” a ten year old female and #3460 “Havana”, a mature male in a SAG, rolling all over one another. “Nymph”, though young, is now of calving age and we are hoping that she will have one soon. It’s a good sign for us to see her in a SAG.
Even though our numbers were lower on this survey, we still documented some new individuals. We had our first sighting of #1209 “EL” for this season. She is an interesting whale in that she was first documented in 1980, so is an old female, is often seen by the different survey teams, yet has never had a calf! We also documented #4194 “Popcorn” who we had previously seen south of Nantucket in January. It’s the first time we have seen him in Cape Cod Bay this season.
Although the number of right whales in Cape Cod Bay has gone down, we don’t believe that they have gone far. This same kind of drop in individuals has occurred in previous years, yet the right whales usually return to Cape Cod Bay to feed in April. With the global pandemic, our ability to continue our surveys is being assessed on a day to day basis, but for now, the weather is keeping us grounded regardless.