Southern right whale researcher from Argentina visits Lubec
In July, we had the pleasure of hosting Florencia “Flo” Vilches, a researcher who studies southern right whales off Argentina and a Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) fellow. MCAF is a microgranting and fellowship program at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life that provides support to marine conservationists in developing countries to help them deal with critical issues facing imperiled species.
As part of the fellowship, MCAF grantees spend time with Anderson Cabot Center scientists to share knowledge and network with their peers. During her two weeks with the team in Lubec, Flo was able to get out to sea on multiple days and saw two right whales. In the office, we introduced her to our custom-made photo-identification software DIGITS, as she explores options for managing their southern right whale database.
We really enjoyed working with Flo and sharing our stories about right whales in different hemispheres!
2018 Gulf of St. Lawrence Summary
In recent years, perhaps in response to a rapidly warming Gulf of Maine, right whale distribution has dramatically shifted, especially in the summer months. After determining that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is now a right whale hot spot, we joined efforts with the Canadian Whale Institute and Dalhousie University to study this emerging habitat. This past summer marked our third year of this joint study.
We were also part of a very successful collaborative multi-agency effort to extensively survey the Gulf of St. Lawrence to better understand right whale habitat use. Canadian and American government entities conducted aerial surveys. Two Slocum gliders from Dalhousie and the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) recorded whale vocalizations and ocean conditions. Thirty-two sonobuoys were deployed from a Canadian Royal Airforce aircraft to listen for whales. Our vessel-based team chartered the Jean-Denis Martin—a 62.5-foot snow crab fishing vessel based out of Shippagan, New Brunswick—to conduct two 14-day cruises in July and August with chief scientists Monica Zani and Amy Knowlton from the Anderson Cabot Center each leading a team of four to five scientists and two crew. Our goals while at sea were to collect right whale photographic and behavioral data, conduct plankton and CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) tows, and deploy additional sonobuoys to hear right whales. The researchers aboard the Jean-Denis Martin found that working with the fishermen crew was beneficial to both parties, allowing an exchange of information, viewpoints, and ideas.
A sonobuoy is a buoy that houses a hydrophone and radio transmitter, and will transmit real-time whale calls back to a receiver (as long as the receiver is within range). Sonobuoys allow the source of the call to be localized.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Slocum gliders are autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with hydrophones and a series of instruments to measure ocean conditions. The glider can follow remotely delivered directions, and upon surfacing will send data back via satellite. The glider can distinguish between whale calls and indicate the species it has detected!
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
(Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) A CTD is a device that is deployed to the seafloor and measures oceanographic parameters, including water temperature, salinity, and density throughout the water column in that particular location. The CTD also has an optical plankton counter attached, which allows for a depiction of the location of the plankton layers and the size of the plankton. This information is then linked to the plankton samples pulled up in the plankton net tows.
Unidentified (juvenile male): In late August a dead, floating right whale was reported off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. A few days later the carcass washed up on a secluded beach on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, where a necropsy was performed. No gear was found on the carcass, but based on external evidence, the cause of death is suspected to be drowning due to entanglement. The young (based on size) whale was not identifiable using physical features due to the level of decomposition; we hope that the genetic samples that were collected will eventually lead to the identification of the individual
Unidentified: On October 14, another right whale carcass was spotted about 100 nautical miles east of Nantucket by a NOAA oceanographic vessel. Although the whale was extremely decomposed, deep wounds consistent with entanglement were visible on the ventral side of its body. As with the August mortality, samples were collected for genetic analysis.
Kleenex (Catalog #1142 ; adult female, unknown age): In our last newsletter, we reported on Kleenex’s long entanglement and an April disentanglement attempt. She was seen several times in June and July in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) aerial survey team. She was still entangled but no disentanglement response was launched. When Kleenex was last seen, in late July, her health appeared to have deteriorated considerably. Her fate is unknown.
Catalog #4091 (8-year-old female):In May, during a routine NEFSC right whale aerial survey, #4091 was observed entangled in the Great South Channel (southeast of Cape Cod). Due to weather conditions, no disentanglement response could be mounted. Catalog #4091 had previously been seen in Cape Cod Bay just six days prior not entangled. She has not been sighted again, and her fate is unknown.
Catalog # 3843 (10-year-old male): In late July, research groups (including the Anderson Cabot Center team) working in the Bay of Fundy found and documented an entangled right whale. Due to a number of circumstances, no disentanglement response occurred. The following day, a search involving multiple organizations/agencies commenced but was hindered by poor weather conditions and reduced visibility. Less than one week later, #3843 was again sighted and a disentanglement team responded. They were able to cut off some of the trailing gear before he quickly swam away. He has not been sighted again, so his current condition and amount of entanglement remaining, if any, is unknown, but we remain optimistic.
Catalog # 3960 (9-year-old male): On August 20 during an Anderson Cabot Center, Canadian Whale Institute, and Dalhousie University research cruise in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, #3960 was sighted and found to be severely entangled. The team felt that the entanglement was very recent as the whale was bleeding. Over the course of two hours, they witnessed him thrash violently each time he surfaced from 15-minute dives. Then the entanglement appeared to shift dramatically and the whale sped up and swam away. It’s believed that #3960 may have freed himself from the gear, but he has not been seen since. We will have to wait for future sightings to confirm that he is truly gear-free.
Photos: Catalog #3960 entangled by multiple lines and buoys from fishing gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Bottom, broken baleen is visible jutting out of the right side of his mouth. Credit NEAQ/CWI/DAL
Discovering That Some of Our Friends Have Been Around a Long Time
Two of the pioneers of whale research, Drs. Bill Watkins and Bill Schevill, photographed right whales in the waters around Cape Cod from 1955 through the early 1980s. The New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass., was recently given their old files and graciously allowed us to review the images. In the process, we discovered quite a treasure trove of new information!
While some of the sightings in the collection had already been submitted to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, others had not. The photos from the Watkins and Schevill collection allowed us to add 20 right whale sightings from 1955 to 1973 to the database. Of those, we have matched two to the Catalog, both males: Scoop (Catalog #) seen on April 13, 1956, and Radiator (#1019 ), photographed in Cape Cod Bay on May 10, 1958. Before we received these photos, our earliest sighting of Scoop was in 1982, so we added 26 years to his sighting history! That 60-year time span between his first sighting in 1956 and his most recent sighting in 2016 makes him the oldest whale alive (that we know of ). The record holder before this was #1045, a calving female with a sighting history that also spanned 60 years. Sadly, she was last seen in 1995 with a deep, and undoubtedly fatal, propeller wound on her head. Radiator’s first sighting had been in 1980, so the 1958 sighting added 22 years to his sighting history. He had a 51-year sighting span, but he was entangled when last seen in 2009 and is now presumed dead.
How much longer could these whales live if we stopped injuring them?
Manta (Catalog #1507)
Seen in Cape Cod Bay on April 30 by the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), and on May 1 by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) vessel survey. Observers noted that he appeared thin and had poor skin condition. Two months later, the NEFSC aerial survey team sighted him in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 20 and 21, but his situation appeared the same.
Aphrodite (Catalog #1701)
Photographed in Cape Cod Bay by CCS on April 22, 23, and 30, and on May 4. At each sighting, she was feeding.
Calvin (Catalog #2223)
(Photo on right) Observed skimfeeding in Cape Cod Bay on April 27 by CCS, then she spent much of the summer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. NEFSC saw her there on June 11, 17, and 30, July 7, 11, 20, and 21, and August 3 and 6! On August 6, NEFSC documented her in two different surface active groups. She was also seen on July 20 and 21, and August 21 by the joint research team from the Anderson Cabot Center, Canadian Whale Institute, and Dalhousie University.
Shackleton (Catalog #2440)
Seen in Cape Cod Bay by CCS on April 22, 23, 27, and 30. Like Aphrodite, he was observed feeding at each sighting.
Unfortunately, we have no recent sightings of Gemini (Catalog #1150) or Phoenix (Catalog #1705) to report. Thank you for sponsoring a right whale and supporting our research!
The Aquarium hosted the fifth annual New England Right Whale Festival on May 6, and with more than 3,400 participants, we almost doubled our attendance from last year! Representatives from 13 organizations shared their knowledge about right whales and engaged visitors with fun, hands-on activities. As in past years, the festival was co-sponsored by the Calvineers, a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students from the Adams School in Castine, Maine, whose mission is to educate the public about right whales and promote conservation.
Save the date of May 5, 2019, for next year’s festival. We hope to see you there!
About Right Whale Research News
- Editor: Marilyn Marx
- Contributors: Marianna Hagbloom, Philip Hamilton, Amy Knowlton, Brooke Hodge, Monica Zani
In this newsletter, all photographs of right whales in U.S. waters were taken under NMFS/NOAA permit under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Right Whale Research News is produced and published by the New England Aquarium. We welcome your comments and suggestions.Read more about our project at accol.org.
You may access past issues of Right Whale Research Newson our website at neaq.org/rightwhale. The archive goes back to 2005, and all but the two most recent issues of RWRN are available. Now when one of the articles in the current issue refers to an earlier piece on the same subject, it’s easy to check it out!