Field Notes – March 2021

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21 March 2021
Aerial Survey

Spring has arrived, bringing baby fever and food in Cape Cod Bay! Sunday’s flight had the most whales we’ve documented in a day thus far, including two new mom-calf pairs, bringing our total mom-calf count to three for Cape Cod Bay!

We had the best weather we’ve seen all season, with low winds, great visibility, and a gorgeous view of the bay. We took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 9:30am and started our survey moving south to north. While our first track line along the eastern edge of the Cape was quiet, we began spotting whales as soon as we crossed over into the bay. 

There was a relatively large group of right whales feeding just offshore of Sandy Neck, and we documented all three mom-calf pairs in this area in the first hour of our survey. We resighted #3520 “Millipede” with her calf, and are happy to report that #2413 “Nauset” and #3860 “Bocce” have also arrived with their 2021 calves. All three mothers were documented feeding near the surface, maintaining contact with their calves nearby.

Further to the north, we spotted a few surface active groups (SAGs) as well as one whale, #3850 “Marlin” who appeared to be having the time of his life tail-slapping at the surface. We also caught up to our vessel crew was also hard at work aboard R/V Shearwater to document zooplankton resources in the bay, and we are excited to find out how food resources might differ between the southern end of the bay where whales were mostly feeding and further north where there appeared to be fewer whales actively feeding.

Right whale #3850, Marlin. Cape Cod Bay, 3/21/21. CCS, NOAA permit #19315-1

We finished the day’s survey with a total count of 89 documented individuals – the most we’ve seen in a day this season! We’ll be flying again tomorrow to cover the Eastern Outer Shore, and we’ll make sure to keep you updated on activity on the other side.


March 10, 2021
Aerial Survey

This Wednesday had some of the best weather we have had all season – low winds and a clear view of the bay. We took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 08:30 flying Cape Cod Bay north to south. The first four track lines were extremely quiet with no sightings.

On track line 5 we found our first right whales – 4 individuals in a SAG consisting of 3 males and a focal female. The males have been identified and are 15-year-old EGNO 3651, 17-year-old EGNO 3460 “Havana,” 39-year-old EGNO 1429 “Scarf.” The female was EGNO 3194, the 24-year-old daughter of EGNO 1412 “Iceland,” who has not had a documented calf yet. Since we saw insertion from both Scarf and 3651 we are hoping she will be a 2022 mom.

One the same track we circled a fin whale, which Sharon was able to get great shots of, and the individual can likely be identified.

Once we got to the eastern part of the bay we encountered a dense aggregation south of Provincetown/west of Wellfleet. On recent surveys the whales have been very difficult to work considering their distribution and dive times (think of the game “whack-a-mole”), and this was no different. We recorded about 10 individuals in that area but were only able to photograph 7 before moving on.

Shortly after, we sighted EGNO 3520 “Millipede” and her 2021 calf again, and they maintained closer body contact compared to last week’s initial sighting.

More whales were sighted in the western portion of the bay, and that is where our survey was derailed because we saw an entangled right whale. Thanks to the New England Aquarium, we know it is EGNO 3560 “Snow Cone,” a 16-year-old breeding female. She was a first time mom in 2020, and unfortunately, we documented her calf’s carcass off New Jersey last summer. The 2020 calf of 3560 had been struck by two different vessels- the first causing severe injury from a propeller over its face, which it survived for weeks, and the second strike over its back which ultimately caused its death.

Our disentanglement team, MAER, responded with the help of the MA Environmental Police, and after hours of work were able to remove almost 300 feet of trailing line from Snow Cone. She is still entangled, so we will be flying as soon as we can in hopes of resighting her.

We continued on our track and did not have any other sightings until we were back east again off Wood End, where we found a low energy SAG of 3 individuals we saw last flight. By the time we finished working the group the call was made by the pilots to land because of the impending poor weather. Despite flying for barely 2 hours (and 4 tracklines) we successfully documented 8 right whales, so all in all a productive day!

– Brigid  

February 26 and March 10, 2021
Habitat Surveys

Right whale #3530, Ruffian. Cape Cod Bay, 2/26/21. CCS, NOAA permit #19315-1.

In the last two weeks our vessel team has been able to get out twice to conduct surveys of Cape Cod Bay, once on the February 26 and again on March 10.  

On 2/26/21 we spotted 14 right whales during a survey of the northeast portion of the bay, with the majority located about 6.5 – 7 nautical miles southwest of Provincetown. We also sighted a humpback and minke whale.

The right whales we documented were either taking 10-15 minute dives or involved in Surface Active Groups (SAGs).  In one of these SAGs we spotted a “fan favorite,” right whale #3530, named Ruffian. Ruffian was born in 2004 to Rat (#1509). In his 17 years Ruffian has suffered and survived several entanglements that have left him severely scarred, giving him marks that make him easily identifiable in the field. He’s a regular visitor to Cape Cod bay and we have seen him almost every year since 2007. 

Right whale #3530, Ruffian. Cape Cod Bay, 2/26/21. CCS, NOAA permit #19315-1.

Our 3/10/21 cruise was a gorgeous day to be out on the bay; with calm water, low wind, and warmer air, it’s a sure sign that spring is on it’s way! While we didn’t see any SAGs on this cruise, it wasn’t long after leaving the dock that we found ourselves in what we affectionately refer to as “whale soup”. Everywhere you looked around the boat another whale popped up every couple of minutes!

We documented 31 individuals all together on this cruise.  The whales were again engaged in 10-15 minute dives, and we were able to easily identify a couple of our regular visitors to the area, including #2614, Tripelago. Tripelago was born in 1996 to #1114 and is a whale that we’ve seen every year for the last decade. 

#2615, Tripelago. Cape Cod Bay, 3/10/21. CCS NOAA 19315-1.

Since the weather was so calm and clear, our aerial survey team was also able to fly, giving the vessel team an opportunity to see them in action from the water. 

We have a couple days of rough weather ahead of us (winter isn’t quite done yet), but we’re looking forward to getting back out on the water sometime next week. Until then! 


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