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Right Whale Mom/Calf

Following our right whale mother/calf behavior project up and down the eastern coast of the United States, starting in the calving grounds in the southeastern United States in January-March, moving up to Cape Cod Bay in April, and finishing in the Bay of Fundy in August-September.

2017 SEUS Field Season by Julia Dombroski

March 16, 2017

The official SEUS 2017 field season started on February 1st and ended on the 20th. A lot happened – and didn’t happen – over the 20 days I spent in Fernandina beach, Florida.  I was over the moon knowing that was about to see North Atlantic right whales; but I was also very anxious as I knew I would be around people I’ve never met, doing something that I had never done before but dreamed of doing since I started working with marine mammals – tagging whales. Moreover, while this was my first tag operation, the field team I was being added to has been tagging all sorts of whales all over the world for at least 6 years. Pretty intimidating, right? Well, I had a great time with the field team (on board and on land) and learned A LOT with everyone. Sadly, despite all effort, we only found one mother-calf pair. But mum and calf were very cooperative and we successfully deployed the tag after the first attempt.

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A wild ride by Dana Cusano

May 8, 2015

We just finished our last week for the CCB 2015 field season, which also means we finished our field work for the North Atlantic right whale mother/calf research project. Pretty crazy and a little bit weird for me since this has has been my primary focus for the last three years with the Parks Lab. I will say, we definitely went out with a bang. Our last week on the Cape consisted of 5 days out on the water and 8 successful tag deployments. Granted, 4 of those lasted ~ 5 minutes or less…but we still got the tags on and that is the hardest part. The other 4 tags however varied from pretty good to amazing, with 2 lasting ~25 minutes, one lasting an hour, and our final tag out on the very last day staying on for 4 hours! Our best deployment for the entire project by FAR, and our best week for the entire project too.

Photos from 6 of our last tag deployments. Photos: top left H. Blair, all others D. Cusano

Photos from 6 of our last tag deployments. Photos: top left H. Blair, all others D. Cusano

Not only did we have great success tagging, but we had a good time too. We got to experience some of the best moments any right whale researcher can hope to experience, such as finding yourself surrounded by a dozen high skim feeding right whales and getting curious approaches from calves.

A curious calf came to check us out. Check out that chunky skin. Photo: D. Cusano

A curious calf came to check us out. Check out that chunky skin. Photo: D. Cusano

Trying to get a better look at us. Photo: D. Cusano

Trying to get a better look at us. Photo: D. Cusano

As much as whale research can be frustrating and difficult, those moments make it all worth while and there is nothing else I would rather do. I sure am gonna miss those “little” guys. Until the next project, the Selkie crew bids you adieu!

Alex, Dana, and Grace onboard Selkie on the last day of the mom/calf project. Photo: M. Marx

Alex, Dana, and Grace onboard Selkie on the last day of the mom/calf project. Photo: M. Marx

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Bon Voyage, Balaenids! by Jessica McCordic

April 30, 2015

With two successful thesis defenses behind us, Hannah and I decided to head for the coast and join Dana and the rest of the right whale crew in Cape Cod for the weekend.  There was only enough room on Selkie for one of us at a time, so Hannah went out Saturday, and I waited for Sunday to go see my favorite balaenid whales.

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Feeding time by Dana Cusano

April 20, 2015

Since we started our 2015 Cape Cod Bay field season, the right whales have been few and far between. They have been scattered about the Bay and in pretty low numbers. It also didn’t appear as if there was much food here and we didn’t see any of the high skim feeding that I have begun to associate with the Bay (see this previous blog post to see read more about skim feeding in right whales, and this post to see photos of a calf trying it out). But things are starting to look up it seems. The weather on Saturday was absolutely beautiful, and we often found ourselves in a sea state 0 or 1. Spectacular.

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100 Miles by Dana Cusano

April 17, 2015

We would do a lot for data, not the least of which is a 10 hour day and a roughly 100 mile round trip. When we launched the boat yesterday, we were going “blind” since the planes weren’t surveying the Bay. So we decided to go east where there were whales a few days prior because it was worth a shot and gave us a good look at the eastern side of the Bay. When that proved uneventful, we headed north to where the Callisto was currently working with a handful of whales. Once there, we found a single whale that we stopped to photograph and we were able to readily ID him as #3530 (Ruffian), an 11 year old male. This whale is very easily identifiable due to a pretty massive scar across his back. Whatever happened to Ruffian was pretty horrible, but he somehow, thankfully, managed to survive.

#3530 “Ruffian”, easily identified by the scarring across his head and back. Photo: L. Conger

#3530 “Ruffian”, easily identified by the scarring across his head and back. Photo: L. Conger

After getting good photos of that guy, we got a call from the CCS plane who was flying north of Cape Cod Bay that day. They had a mom/calf pair, #1604 and calf, but they were pretty far away from us – 20 miles away in fact. Not only that, they were on the backside of the Bay, well outside of our normal range for our CCB field season. It was still early in the day, the waters were smooth, and the forecast for the remainder of the day looked good so we made a decision. We were gonna go for it.

Our day. The orange marker is where we launched the boat, the red marker is where we found Ruffian, and the green marker was the location given by the plane of #1604 with her calf. Quite a day! Photo cred to Google on this one.

Our day. The orange marker is where we launched the boat, the red marker is where we found Ruffian, and the green marker was the location given by the plane of #1604 with her calf. Quite a day! Photo cred to Google on this one.

When we got to the coordinates given to us from the plane, we started our search to relocate the pair. After a good half hour of searching, we started to lose hope. I even started to doubt I wrote down the coordinates correctly…I’ve never done that before, but there’s a first time for everything, right? This would be an unfortunate first. Honestly not 5 seconds after I said, “I hate whales” out loud to Alex, they popped up and we both said “there”! For the record, I don’t really hate whales. I love them. They are just maddening sometimes…

Ya know what makes it all better though? This:

A spectacular look at #1604’s calf. Photo: D. Cusano

A spectacular look at #1604’s calf. Photo: D. Cusano

And this:

Another successful tagging! Photo: A. Loer

Another successful tagging! Photo: A. Loer

The only bad part of the day was the 40 mile schlep home…but it was all worth it. Back at it tomorrow!

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Patience and persistence pay off by Dana Cusano

April 13, 2015

I know I have mentioned it before, but I think I should stress the point again – putting a tag on a whale is HARD. I mean, let’s think about it. We are trying to put a small recording tag (in our case an Acousonde) which is about 9″ long on a living, breathing, has-a-mind-of-its-own animal that can be anywhere from about 15 ft in the case of calves to over 50 ft in the case of moms. On top of that, the tag is deployed from a carbon fiber pole that extends to about 26 ft. The tag is then attached to the whale with suction cups that must all sit nice and flat in order for it to stay for any extended period of time, and anytime something (ahem, a calf) bumps into it, the tag can and often does slide or pop right off. Now all this must be done from a boat in whatever sea state you might find yourself in while the animal is often moving. Yeah. That being said, when we finally do get a tag on it is obviously the result of quite a bit of skill, but also more than a fair share of patience and persistence. And luck. We had all of these things on Sunday, plus #1611 and calf up past Race Point.

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One more time by Dana Cusano

April 8, 2015

I am back in Falmouth for our 5th Cape Cod Bay field season – and our last. Not only is this our final CCB field season though, it is our last scheduled field season for the North Atlantic Right Whale Mom/Calf Project. Crazy, right?

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That's a wrap by Dana Cusano

March 16, 2015

The SEUS 2015 field season is over, and the Duke/Syracuse team officially disbanded last week. Although the season is finished for us, it is far from over for the other teams involved in right whale research in the southeast. The aerial teams will fly until March 31 and the FWC and Georgia DNR boats are still around as well. Even though we only managed to get a few tags on this year, one of those was a 23 hour tag – that is a long deployment! There are also officially 16 moms so far, up from 11 last year, and plenty of time for more calves to be had! Here are the newest editions to the mom list:

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How do you measure happiness? by Dana Cusano

February 26, 2015

For our little team of field biologists? By the number of right whales spotted. One big and one little is perfect.

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Something Blue by Dana Cusano

February 14, 2015

The tides have turned here in Fernandina Beach and the Duke Marine Lab team has moved in to kick-off the next right whale project for the season. Just like last year, this project is aimed at more than just the behavior of mother-calf right whale pairs. The broader focus is to track the movement of any/all demographic and age groups of right whales here in the southeast. See Jess’ post from last year for some more info.

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The “Who’s Who” update by Dana Cusano

February 9, 2015

Time for a SEUS 2015 mom update! Just as we all hoped, there are still more calves being born down here. Here is some info on the new moms:

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Something borrowed by Dana Cusano

January 27, 2015

With the weather forecast looking bleak, we thought it would be no problem that the R/V Selkie was in for maintenance. But when we awoke to Thursday being a relatively “workable” day, Grace wasted no time in trying to secure us another boat for the day. That boat came in the form of the R/V R3, borrowed for the day from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) along with Tony Martinez, Operations Analyst with the Protected Resources Division of SEFSC and our captain for the day. Based on the transect lines of the aerial survey team we were planning to track with, and in order to minimize potential transit times to any mother/calf pair they might see, we decided to launch out of Mayport. The seas were a bit chunky, but we considered it still workable. Of course after all our hard work to get out, there were no mother/calf pairs sighted at all that day…very disappointing. But at least we were able to be out on the water and at least we had a chance to get out on the R3 with Tony, which was a lot of fun. The R3, by the way, happens to be very SU orange.

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Who’s who SEUS 2015 by Dana Cusano

January 23, 2015

Time for another mom update, filled with info from the New England Aquarium right whale catalog and the North Atlantic right whale DNA Bank at Trent University. Thanks to these organizations, and the funding of NOAA Fisheries, we can look up the information on all of these moms using freely available, online resources. Here is some info on the moms so far in 2015:

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Familiar friends by Dana Cusano

January 7, 2015

It is back to Fernandina Beach for our final Florida field season on the mom/calf project. While that is a bit sad to think about, it is great to have Alex on board again and Pete will be joining us shortly – a great team to finish off with. And those aren’t the only familiar friends down here! Also spotted recently was Eg #4092, our dear friend from last year (see blog post “Curious encounters of the whale kind” written last year by Nathan).

Yesterday was our first day out for the season. After tracking with the plane for a short while I noticed a fluke waving at me just 1/2 mile away from the center of the sun’s glare. It couldn’t have been more perfect. As we arrived on the spot, we stopped around where we thought the whale would come up and we waited for it to reappear. After just a moment, not 5 meters from our stopped boat, a massive right whale head slowly broke the surface of the water to take a look at us, then slipped back below the surface. A few seconds later, on the other side of the boat, up pops that face again. This behavior, and that beautiful lumpy face, were more than enough to let us know that #4092 was making herself known yet again!

The beautiful 4092. Photo: Lisa Conger

The beautiful 4092. Photo: Lisa Conger

For comparison, here is a photo I took last year. You can easily tell her by the scars on her chin.

Photo: Dana Cusano

Photo: Dana Cusano

She wasn’t quite as interested in us as she was last year, so our encounter was short, but I like to think maybe she remembered our big orange boat. No mom/calf pairs for us yet, but the season is young. Maybe we will even get another close encounter with our friend 4092! She needs a name, don’t you think?

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Until next year by Dana Cusano

September 22, 2014
With the impending stretch of bad weather, the utter lack of all things right whale, and the end of the season drawing near anyway, we decided to call our 2014 Bay of Fundy field season officially over. I will be heading back to Syracuse not entirely empty handed, though with admittedly Continue reading

Oh hi, cachalot by Dana Cusano

September 5, 2014

While our team spotted no right whales in the Bay yesterday (the other teams combined found 4-6) I finally got my sperm whale encounter! Granted all I saw of it were its flukes, and I didn’t even get a picture…so here is one from Arkive. 

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Right whales, great friends, and…pirates? by Dana Cusano

August 31, 2014

This has been a great past few days and for two very different reasons!

Thursday started out like any marginal boat day: getting up early and looking at the weather, then looking at it every 15 minutes to see if it has changed or not, for better or worse. We had just made the decision not to go when Marianna came dancing (quite literally) into the kitchen. The folks from Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station had called on the radio and were out in the Bay with a potential mother/calf right whale pair! Just to brag a bit, from the time we got the call until we were on scene was only about an hour and 15 minutes. We were on our GAME. And obviously more than a little excited to finally have an opportunity to do what we came for: tag a right whale mom or calf.

When we got there we expected just a mom/calf pair. What we found instead were 5-8 right whales all in the same area, even grouped up together at times. We saw the animal the GMWSRS team said could be a calf, and although it was a bit bigger than the calves usually are around here, it was definitely a young animal. The pretty big swell we were in was making it very difficult to even see all of the whales around, so we knew we needed to really act fast in order to get a tag on. We really were on our game. We got our tag on and the placement was perfect. Not that we expect much less from Alex of course. No sooner did we get our tag on though did the whales dive, and were gone.

Still shots pulled from the GoPro of our successful tagging. Photos: Alex Loer

Still shots pulled from the GoPro of our successful tagging. Photos: Alex Loer

That’s the problem with whales. They can disappear. I have mentioned this before, and I will say it again for those disbelievers, it is so easy to lose a whale. And that swell we were in? Oh that does not help, not at all. We had all of our tracking equipment out and were getting hits from our dear tag (it was of course Scoby), however if we were in the bottom of the swell we were obscured from the transmitter on the tag and it was difficult to get a “hit”. We equipped the Nereid with our other set of tracking gear and had Heather Koopman and Andrew Westgate from GMWSRS keep an ear out on their equipment too just for good measure. Turns out Andrew, one of their senior scientists, is not only very VERY good at tracking, he LOVES it. Guess who found it first…it is always nice to have great friends that are willing to help out in the name of science. First round is on us guys.

To add to our good mood and high spirits, yesterday was the annual “Pirate Invasion” where the town of Eastport “invades” Lubec. In other words, everyone from both towns dresses up as pirates and those from Eastport head over by boat, motorcycle, and sea plane where we attempt to fend them off with water guns and water balloons. We inevitably fail, and then there are festivities to be shared by both Lubecers and Eastporteans alike. Being such a windy day, we were on land for it again this year and were able to partake.

Me, Kelsey, Liz, Grace, and Dan dressed in our finest pirate garb!

Me, Kelsey, Liz, Grace, and Dan dressed in our finest pirate garb!

We won’t be out tomorrow, but Tuesday looks promising. Hopefully the whales have stuck around! Until then, insert cliche, cheesy pirate goodbye here – something using the words “arr”, “matey”, and “Davey Jones’ locker”.

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Why sperm whales are bad news by Dana Cusano

August 23, 2014

Well, for us anyway. And squid. And Captain Ahab.

We just had our first two days out in the Bay for the 2014 season, and while we saw many species, we only saw 3 or 4 right whales. None of which were a mom/calf pair. The other two teams had similar luck, with a combined total of less than 10 right whales between all three of us over a two day span. We surveyed pretty much everywhere we could in the Bay too so it seems, for the moment at least, the right whales have left the party. That isn’t to say they won’t come back of course, but the sperm whales have moved in…cue creepy music.

Why is that so bad? Sperm whales are cool, right?? Well sure, but here in the Bay of Fundy it means that things are changing. Up until just a few years ago, only a single sperm whale had been documented here since 1980. And it was just a few years ago that we started to have such a drop in right whales sightings here in the Bay. It isn’t that the sperm whales are driving the right whales away, but they definitely do seem to move in as the right whales move out. Since these guys eat squid, not copepods like right whales, our scientist colleagues think it likely indicates a shift in the entire food chain, and not mere coincidence. Eek.

Anyway, I still haven’t actually had the opportunity to ever SEE a sperm whale, so I am still hoping to get that chance this year. Bad news or not, they really are pretty neat. I imagine seeing one will obviously go something like this:

Insert big orange safeboat instead of wooden boat…

Insert big orange safeboat instead of wooden boat…

Species list for the first two days out: right whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoise, basking sharks, ocean sunfish, grey seals, one bald eagle, puffins, and countless other seabirds that I am lumping together for lack of any solid personal interest…

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One more round by Dana Cusano

August 17, 2014

I arrived back in the Bay of Fundy Thursday night for our last field season here on the mom/calf project. The New England Aquarium has been here for about 2 weeks and have had much greater success than last year already (read all about it in their blog). There have been a couple of sightings of mom/calf pairs but these reports are over a week old now. We are still very, very optimistic that this will turn out to be a great season full of whales though! Considering our team didn’t see a single right whale last year in the Bay, I think the odds are high.

Although, in the words of Han Solo, never tell me the odds…check back soon!

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Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey of Scoby by Dana Cusano

May 14, 2014

I have to admit, I had started to give up hope on finding our little tag. It had been 11 days with no sign, no word. I had searched the beaches, listened with the VHF antenna, and posted signs with not so much as a glimpse, a blip on the receiver, or a phone call. And then it happened…

Grace and I were in the car when her phone started alerting her of messages, emails, voicemails. We ignored them at first (she was driving after all), but eventually Grace had me check to see what was up. She had emails, texts, and missed calls from several different colleagues, all regarding the discovery of a green tag by a beachcomber 10 days earlier. All of the messages asked the same question: was it ours? Yes, yes it was!

This was amazing news, and we were ready to stop what we were doing and head out to wherever this mystery person held our tag! We got the phone number for Mr. Lance Arnold and immediately called him. When we finally got to talk to him, we discovered he really did have our Scoby and that she was intact and seemingly unharmed. Based on what Lance described, that one of the LED lights was flashing at the top of the minute, she also still appeared to be recording something! Now came the snafu. Lance lived in Connecticut…here is Scoby’s story.

Lance found our tag while combing the beach on April 20th, the day after we deployed Scoby. While our contact info was on the tag, it’s unfortunate placement hid it underneath some electrical tape (oops). With no way to know this, Lance had no idea who the tag belonged to. Being a former marine science instructor however (oh what luck), he knew it was a scientific instrument and that whoever it belonged to probably wanted it back pretty badly. Right he was. With not much to go on other than that he knew the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was right nearby and possibly involved, he began by contacting them. Since we had requested help from everyone we knew, including some WHOI affiliates, most researchers in the area were aware that we had lost a tag. It took 10 days, but eventually word trickled down to us that our tag had been found. Meanwhile however, Lance returned home to Connecticut. With no other options or leads at that time, he took our Scoby along for the ride. Grace and I discussed our options, and although Lance generously offered to ship us our tag, we decided it was best, safest, and easiest for someone to just drive the 2.5 hours and go get her. That someone of course, was me.

So I set out early the next day for Ashford Connecticut to meet Lance Arnold: Scoby savior. Unbeknownst to me, he was also Lance Arnold: artist and sculptor. Here is a little blurb about Mr. Arnold from his artist statement:

A former science teacher and self-taught artist, Lance Arnold was born in Boston and raised in Hingham, Massachusetts. He graduated from American International College with a BS in Biology and later earned a Master’s in the Art of Teaching from the University of North Carolina. Mr. Arnold has always possessed an intense love of the ocean and he often harvests treasures from the sea and beaches (thankfully for us!) for his one-of-a-kind glass compositions and sculptures. There is an organic feel to many of Mr. Arnold’s pieces, which celebrate nature in all its various forms. Making use of driftwood, animal bones, oxidized metal, and sea creatures, he creates the many unique images that appear in his glass panels and found-object sculpture. Mr. Arnold’s varied palette also consists of bits and pieces from abandoned dumpsites and roadsides, as well as from the shore. These are assembled in sculptural works marrying an aesthetic sense for color and shape with a quiet respect for found objects and serendipity. He also creates functional and ornamental art consisting of glass boxes, vases, wind chimes, and jewelry.

I had the pleasure of not only meeting Lance, who is delightful by the way, but I got to see his amazing studio. As an artist myself, I have to say I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store. It was filled with finished sculptures, paintings, and jewelry but also with trinkets and treasures waiting to be transformed. If you are an artist, a lover of the sea, or just anyone who likes to see boxes of wild animal skulls, I highly recommend going to see his studio. Visit his website if nothing else, you won’t be disappointed!

Scoby is back with me now in the Parks Lab in Syracuse. Will briefly looked at it and it seems the tag was only on the whale for about 2 hours. Better than 30 seconds of course, so I can’t/won’t complain. I plan on browsing the audio this week, so let’s hope for some good data! Thanks again Lance!

Really happy to be reunited!

Really happy to be reunited!

Hannah, myself, Jess, and Leanna proudly holding our returned tag and the medusa glass sculpture Lance Arnold gave to the Park’s Lab!

Hannah, myself, Jess, and Leanna proudly holding our returned tag and the medusa glass sculpture Lance Arnold gave to the Park’s Lab!

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Another day, another calf by Dana Cusano

April 27, 2014

We had a pretty nice day out on Monday: beautiful weather, lots of whales, and we found our own mom/calf pair pretty early in the day. Not to sound like a cocky young jedi apprentice, but we are starting to get pretty good at tagging these calves! Take a look at our video here, recorded by the talented Alex on his GoPro: Tag_2040-HD 720p

Granted, the tag only stayed on for 30 minutes, but that is pretty good for a rambunctious calf that liked to roll around on mom a lot…we also got to witness the little guy practicing to be a successful right whale adult. He swam around a bit with his mouth open just like skim-feeding mom. Pretty adorable!

Mom skim feeding on the left, calf mimicking mom on the right. Photo: Will Cioffi

Mom skim feeding on the left, calf mimicking mom on the right. Photo: Will Cioffi

We have gotten two tags on in the last two days out, let’s hope we can continue our hot streak!

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The travels of tag B004 (“Scoby”) by Dana Cusano

April 22, 2014

Good news or bad news first? Let’s go with good news! Saturday was a lovely day out on the water with lots of sunshine, albeit a bit cold. Parks Lab master’s student Hannah Blair was able to accompany us and she got to see her very first right whale, up close and personal! We were on our game that day and got a tag on an adult right whale (not yet identified) around noon. It was as smooth and successful as anyone could have hoped. Better yet, it was our Acousonde tag that is equipped with a FastLoc GPS on it to track the whales movements along with the other data – tag B004, which we fondly refer to as Scoby. We were pretty excited.

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Sneaky subsurface skimmers by Dana Cusano

April 13, 2014

We had a lovely day out on the water yesterday and the CCS (Center for Coastal Studies) plane even found us #2123 – Couplet. The only problem was that she was over 20 miles away from where we launch out of Sandwich…

The blue marker is where the mother/calf pair was seen. The red marker is Sandwich, where we launch our boat…

The blue marker is where the mother/calf pair was seen. The red marker is Sandwich, where we launch our boat…

It was still early in the afternoon, and Selkie can move pretty fast (25+ knots), so normally we wouldn’t have even questioned whether we should go. This is Cape Cod however, and the trouble with the Cape is that there can be hundreds of feeding right whales around. What’s more, if they are subsurface feeding, you might never even know it! To keep both them and us safe, it is prudent to travel at pretty slow speeds (less than 10 knots or so). At that speed we wouldn’t make it to the pair for another 2 hours at least! We went for it anyway. We did find the pair, however we didn’t manage to get a tag on her. We didn’t get to spend nearly as much time working as we would have liked because we had to factor in a 2+ hour transit back to Sandwich, all before sunset!

We made our way back slowly and uneventfully, only seeing a few right whales pop up here and there. When we got the end of the day update from the CCS plane we were surprised to hear that they had ~145 right whales in and around the Bay yesterday! This is a perfect example of why feeding right whales in Cape Cod Bay are at such a high risk from ship strike; a paper by Parks et al. 2012 showed that feeding right whales in this habitat spend the majority of their time just subsurface where they can’t be seen, but are shallow enough to be vulnerable to vessel collision. Dangerous dining indeed! Hopefully we will back out soon!

Yesterday’s trash removal included a rubber trash can and a gold balloon. We also saw several other balloons and a cutting board that we weren’t able to retrieve.

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Back to the Bay by Dana Cusano

April 7, 2014

Well it’s back to Falmouth, Massachusetts for the 2014 Cape Cod Bay field season! I arrived Tuesday and while we haven’t had much luck with the weather, there is one mom/calf pair waiting in the Bay for us – #2123, Couplet. (The Duke team got a tag on her just this past season – see the blog post here). We are still waiting and hoping the rest of the mom/calves will show up soon! Here is an updated mom list for the 2014 calving season (view the previous list in our earlier blog) and what we are hoping to accomplish in CCB this year:

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Fun, sun, and a sea state one by Dana Cusano

March 3, 2014

Our last two days on the water for the SEUS 2014 field season were amazing. Despite predictions of rain and wind, the weather ended up being beautiful – no rain and a sea state between 0 and 1 all day.

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Another great day in Florida by Will Cioffi

February 4, 2014

We had some fog yesterday morning so we had to wait a bit for it to clear before going out on the water. When the fog did clear, we had some beautiful weather and were able to spend some time with a right whale mother and her calf not far from home. As the day went on, the wind slacked off and conditions got nicer and nicer. We made an attempt to attach an acoustic tag, but when we were unsuccessful we backed off and put some hydrophones in the water to record from a distance instead. While the hydrophones were listening, we were watching, taking pictures, video, and writing down behaviors the old fashioned way: with paper and pencil.

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Curious encounters of the whale kind by Nathan Merchant

January 31, 2014

These last few days we’ve been land bound by windy weather, so we took advantage of the downtime to fit shiny new engines to the R/V Selkie. More control and horsepower to get us safely and speedily around our mother/calf survey area. Very exciting! Before we get anywhere near the whales, though, we switch to our electric motors, which let us maneuver silently to make observations. Sometimes we get lucky: on our third field day this season, we didn’t even need these – the whale came to us…

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A trip to Brunswick by Will Cioffi

January 28, 2014

Yesterday there were some sightings too far north to reach from Fernandina Beach. Luckily for us, we were able to trailer the boat to Brunswick, GA to get closer to these most recent sightings. It was our first trip out of Brunswick this year. In fact, we used a brand new boat launch underneath the Sidney Lanier bridge and then traveled the short distance out the Brunswick River into the Atlantic. Along the way, we got a nice view of Jekyll Island to the South, and St. Simons to the North.

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An update on moms by Dana Cusano

January 21, 2014

Good news! Two new moms were sighted yesterday, bringing the total number of mother/calf pairs in the southeast to 5 so far this year. Thanks to the awesome work from the New England Aquarium, and the funding of NOAA Fisheries, we can look up the information on all of these moms using the North Atlantic right whale catalog. This is the most complete right whale identification resource available today, with over 200,000 photographs dating back to 1935! By using the work from the North Atlantic right whale DNA bank at Trent University, we are also able to sometimes determine the paternity of some whales too. This is much harder to do, but those guys are ever working on getting more and more pedigrees deciphered! Here is some info on the moms so far:

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New season, new goals by Dana Cusano

January 16, 2014

Well we are back in the southeast for our fourth SEUS field season, and this year we are changing our focus a bit. For the past three seasons, we have been focused on conducting behavioral follows of mother-calf pairs while simultaneously making acoustic recordings. Since we have three good years of that, Susan decided we should try to supplement our existing data with tag data. This will allow us to say with even more confidence that what we have been seeing in previous years is representative of the behavior of mom/calf right whale pairs. While we tried our hand a bit at tagging last year, this year we are making it our top priority!

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Until next time... by Dana Cusano

September 24, 2013

Well that about does it for this field season. It was one of the strangest ones on record for those that have been doing this for decades – this was the NEAq team’s 34th year in the Bay! We ended the season having no sightings on board Selkie. In fact, this was the first time Grace has been to Fundy and not seen a single right whale, and she has been coming here for 20 years…but negative data is still data, as they say, and this year proves that despite all that we do know we still have a lot to learn. It will be very interesting to see where/when the whales show up next!

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Eubalaena, where art thou? by Dana Cusano

September 14, 2013

Seals and sharks
Puffins and porpoise
Minkes and fin whales
They hide not from us

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Not the *right* whales by Dana Cusano

September 6, 2013

When looking at the weather forecast last night as we always do, it looked like today might be good for at least a half day out on the water. The winds were light in the morning and would blow 10-15 later in the day. Since we haven’t had much of an opportunity to go out this season, we decided to go for it. When checking the weather again this morning as we always do, the forecast had changed. For once, though, it changed in our favor. It was now going to blow light winds all day with calm seas and not pick up until the evening. Could it be? Could we get a full day in?!

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Perhaps the fog is lifting? by Dana Cusano

September 1, 2013

Figuratively, anyway. After a very slow month, as in zero right whales spotted by either team in the Bay, a mom/calf pair has been spotted! Last Wednesday reports came in that there was a mother and her calf in the Lubec Channel. The Nereid crew rushed to the scene, which didn’t take long considering they were so close…

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Slow start by Dana Cusano

August 16, 2013

We finally managed to get out on the water on Monday (as you may recall from last year the weather here is not overly cooperative) but it seems we were not missing much…we saw a couple of minke whales, a bunch of harbor porpoises, and a fin whale. The Nereid (the boat used by the New England Aquarium’s research team) went out as well and they saw a few humpback whales to add to the list of cetaceans in the Bay. But as for the right whales? Conspicuously absent. The Nereid surveyed a good portion of the Bay already this year and the right whales just aren’t here yet. In fact, the New England Aquarium has decided to take a small team offshore to look for right whales in Roseway Basin and Lurcher Shoal, off of the coast of Nova Scotia. They left this morning and will be at sea for 6-10 days. Hopefully they come back with news of lots of whales, preferably headed this way of course!

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Getting Settled by Jessica McCordic

August 9, 2013

Nestled against the Canadian border, at the tippy top of the U.S. East Coast, lies the tiny town of Lubec.  This town effectively marks the beginning of the Bay of Fundy, a region known for having the largest tidal range in the world (up to 50 feet in some places!).  Lubec’s tides range about 18-22 feet, which is still enough to make a dramatic difference in the landscape every 6 hours or so.

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And just like that... by Dana Cusano

May 6, 2013

…they are gone. The PCCS (Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies) team flew their final aerial survey of the season yesterday and found only one lone right whale outside of the Bay. It’s pretty amazing actually. One day there can be a hundred individuals (pretty impressive since there are only about 500 in the entire population), and in a matter of days they are all gone.

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Copious copepods in Cape Cod Bay by Dana Cusano

May 2, 2013

Well Jess and I went for another “whirlwind tour” of Cape Cod this past weekend and this time there seemed to be even more whales than before. In fact, the day before we arrived 113 right whales were reported in the Bay, including 5 mother/calf pairs! That is a lot of whales…

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Welcome to Cape Cod, Massachusetts by Dana Cusano

April 17, 2013

The Cape Cod field season is different from other field seasons because of one important fact: there is no field station. That is, the team and all of our equipment are spread out in several places, making everything a bit more challenging. This year I am staying in Syracuse and only driving up to Cape Cod when we have a weather window. As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is often very difficult to predict when the weather will cooperate…that being said, when Grace called on Saturday and said “tomorrow and Monday look good”, I wasn’t too surprised at the short notice. Unfortunately it was too late to get there in time for Sunday’s boat day but I could easily manage getting there for Monday. Susan couldn’t make it, but luckily Leanna and Jess were able to rework their busy schedules and join me. So Sunday came and we departed for what Jess called “a whirlwind tour of Cape Cod”

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Closing out the season by Susan Parks

February 26, 2013

Overall this season has been a resounding success. The number of right whale calves for the season has reached 20, with new mothers still being sighted in mid-February. We have collected behavioral and acoustic data from a good cross section of the population, got a glimpse into underwater behavior from a tag attachment and even have more than one follow for some mother-calf pairs, giving us insight into how the pair’s behavior changes as the calves mature.

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A lesson on sea state by Dana Cusano

February 12, 2013

Planning for a possible boat day last night, we of course kept a close eye on the weather forecast.The weather according to the NOAA national weather service forecast was still looking fairly decent: northwest winds 10 knots, seas 2 to 3ft, waters a light chop, etc. We are pretty restricted by the weather as I’ve said, and generally don’t go out in winds more than 10 knots or so. Anything stronger than that and we get a sea state that is unworkable for us, meaning we would have a very hard time keeping track of the whales, putting equipment in the water, taking it back out, recording video, collecting behavioral observations, etc. So 10 was a definite possibility. We all went to bed early and were up at 6:30 to check the weather again.

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The Tagging by Dana Cusano

February 7, 2013

Well today marks the end of our good weather stretch, but with 4 great days on the water within a 5 day period we have very little to complain about! The past few days are a blur, but what I can tell you is that we got a little bit of everything. That is, everyday we got all the data we set out to collect! The only exception to that is the tag data…we have been trying very hard to get a tag on but it is just as hard as you might expect. So we have not had very good luck as of yet. Good news from yesterday though – we finally got our first tag on! Let me explain a little bit about how the process works so you can appreciate how much work goes into it and share in our feeling of accomplishment.

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Grounded by Dana Cusano

February 1, 2013

Well it has been nearly a week since we last went out, and while it was useful in terms of getting our data organized and browsed, we are all ready to get back out on the water. When we went on Saturday there were at least 8 mom/calf pairs in the area, out of the 16 known pairs down here. That’s pretty amazing! The planes flew on Tuesday though (despite the fog and haze that prevented us from going) and they only came across two adult right whales…no mom/calf pairs. Hmm…hopefully they just moved offshore in anticipation of the storm that came across the area. Or maybe they were just staying down for extended periods of time. There is only one way to find out. We need to get back out there!

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They say two is company and three’s a crowd by Dana Cusano

January 28, 2013

That may be true in some cases, but not for our project! Three is not so much a crowd as a bare minimum. It takes at least three people to go out and collect data on Selkie, but we have discovered over the years that the more people we have, the more data we can get (within limits of course…Selkie is by no means a large boat). For our project to be successful, we have a lot of data to collect each and every trip. We have photos to take, GPS coordinates to track, video and audio to record, behavioral data to sequence, and CTD casts to do. On top of all of that, we must be constantly watching the whales, driving the boat, and keeping track of the hydrophones. On top of all of THAT we also may have to biopsy and this season we are trying to deploy suction cup tags for acoustic and depth data right from the whale. 

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When roles are reversed… by Dana Cusano

January 22, 2013

Yesterday started out as a great day at only 7am. The weather was looking great for the day, we had Selkie back and all of our gear was packed up and ready to go by 8:30. Not long after we launched, the plane called and we were on a mother/calf pair by 10am! Now that is what a day should start like!

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It’s a wonderful day for pie! by Dana Cusano

January 19, 2013

…and not much else. So we have been grounded for a few days due to some very strong winds, but it wasn’t a total loss. I tried my hand at making Claudia’s key lime pie and it was a success! I wish Leanna and Jess were still here to share in my glory (plus I know they would’ve helped and maybe it wouldn’t have taken an entire afternoon…)!

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To pull a boat by Jessica McCordic

January 15, 2013

You guessed it—Dead in the water, Part II wasn’t the end of our troubles with R/V Selkie’s engine.  As Leanna’s and my last day on the water, we got to experience one of the more interesting aspects of marine fieldwork: when things go wrong (and get resolved in unexpected ways).

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Kinder waters by Leanna Matthews

January 14, 2013

It was the day after my Sea Legs adventure.  The weather was decent, so we headed back to the water to find more whales.  Armed with motion sickness meds and a sleeve of saltine crackers, I prepared myself physically and emotionally for another potential disaster.  The winds and the waves had died down quite a bit overnight, so I was already feeling more confident in my abilities to maintain composure aboard our research vessel.  As we headed offshore, we got a call about a reported right whale that was sighted by a local beach-goer.  We were skeptical (did this person actually see a right whale?), but we decided to check it out just in case.

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Dead in the water (Part II) by Jessica McCordic

January 13, 2013

We woke up to clear skies and a forecast for calm seas, so we gathered all the gear, snagged a quick bite for breakfast, and were off in a flash to fuel the boat for a day offshore. About 10 minutes after launching, we passed a small boat with two fishermen who waved us down.  As we puttered over, I hoped they didn’t think we were Coast Guard (our vessel’s previous home).  Turns out all they needed was a tow—apparently their water pump had broken, leaving them dead in the water with a nearly overheated engine.  We were happy to help, and with Grace at the helm we brought them safely back to the boat ramp, made sure they were all set at the dock, and headed out for a second time.

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Sea legs by Leanna Matthews

January 12, 2013

To “get one’s sea legs” – a maritime catchphrase I have recently added to my ever expanding list of boat-related vocabulary.  Commonly used in association with one’s inability to remain poised onboard a moving vessel, this phrase also refers to the issue of motion sickness.  As in, Leanna hadn’t found her sea legs before yesterday, so she threw up six times off the back of the boat.  Too much information?  Apologies to any readers with weak stomachs.

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Right Whales, Wrong Weather by Leanna Matthews

January 9, 2013

I will be the first to admit that I’ve never really been on a boat.  And that I’ve never been to the Atlantic Ocean.  And that I’ve never actually seen a whale in real life.  So when I had the opportunity to help out with the mom/calf study this season in the Southeast US, I was beyond thrilled!

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Welcome to Fernandina Beach, Florida by Dana Cusano

January 2, 2013

Finally in the field again! It is the start of a new year and our team is back out in the field. This time we are in Fernandina Beach, Florida, on Amelia Island, 25 miles Northeast of Jacksonville, Florida. At the start of every field season there is always a start up process. For this trip, Dana Cusano and I flew in from Syracuse, NY with four enormous bags of gear, along with two carryon bags and two life saver colored hard sided pelican cases. Somehow we managed to wrangle all the luggage to the curb, and thanks to a rush on cars at Enterprise we were able to get a complimentary upgrade to a rental vehicle large enough to store all our bags. The Sugar Bowl game was in Jacksonville, Fl on January 2nd, a fact we were unaware of, which explained both the high cost of plane tickets and the low available stock on rental cars.

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Farewell Fundy! by Dana Cusano

September 23, 2012

It is officially the end of the season, so that means it is time to pack up and head out. We didn’t see many right whales this year, and only one mom/calf pair, but I would still call it a success. Some data is definitely better than no data, that’s for sure. Hopefully we will have a lot of calves born this winter so next year will be even better!

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Eavesdropping on #3390 by Dana Cusano

September 21, 2012

There’s something about being on an all-female research vessel, searching for a right whale mother and calf pair in the grey palette of the Bay of Fundy, that makes you think about our gender. More specifically – motherhood. How exactly does the relationship between a mother and her calf evolve? Can this rate be observed (and subsequently measured) from studying their behavior and vocalizations? As we round out our third year of a this five-year project, we are finally starting to accrue data to tackle these questions. Our research goal: study the interactions between right whale mother/calf pairs over the calf’s first year. We accomplish this by following them from their winter calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to their springtime feeding areas off Massachusetts, and finally to their summer mating grounds here in the Bay of Fundy (BOF). Our research tools: concurrent behavioral and acoustic sampling from a small boat platform. Our current BOF subjects: Catalog #3390 and her calf.

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Dead in the water… by Dana Cusano

September 12, 2012

We started the morning bright and early. Finally we were going out after being in for more than a week! We were all set and ready to go when…the engine wouldn’t start. Surely this was just a fluke, we haven’t had any problems this field season! So we tried again…nothing. Just the disheartening sound of an engine desperately trying to turn over and failing miserably. Fortunately the Callisto was going out today as well and were still on the dock as we were attempting to disembark. Two boats tied together and one set of jumper cables later, we had the engine started. Great! We waved to the Callisto as they departed, still yelling our thanks…

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The sounds of success by Dana Cusano

September 3, 2012

When we got a call over the radio today that there was a mom/calf spotted not too far from where we were surveying, we sped off as fast as we could towards the location we were given. When we arrived and found a right whale, we were a little surprised. Here was the calf of #3390, but all alone! The calf didn’t seem too concerned and was simply lolling about at the surface, doing slow rolls and lazy flipper slaps. This was a perfect opportunity to get the hydrophones in the water and record some calls!

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Strangers in the Bay… by Dana Cusano

August 31, 2012

Well we have been stuck on land now for a few days due to some pretty windy conditions, but last we knew we still only had trusty #3390 and her calf in the Bay. We are hoping the other mom’s are just running a little late and will join in soon! There have been other surprises to keep us on our toes in the meantime though, and I’ll take this day off as an opportunity to share what we have seen. Some interesting species have been spotted this year that are “strangers” to the Bay. Some have not been seen in years, some are seen only every few years, and some have never been documented here at all! (I do note however that just because they have never been documented before does not necessarily mean they have never been here; it may be that they have been here and never spotted, or spotted but never documented. This is always a difficulty when working with animals that spend most of their lives out of our sight. Regardless, it is still very cool!).

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Welcome to the Bay #3390 by Dana Cusano

August 20, 2012

Just as we were departing, we got a call from the Nereid: they had a mom/calf pair. #3390 and her calf, to be specific. It took us about an hour to get to where the Nereid was. As soon as we arrived we slowed down to begin our search. We heard a blow and got so excited we immediately started to take photo ID shots: pictures of both sides of the head which we can use to identify each whale. More on that later….After several photos our seasoned right whale expert and captain, Monica, stopped and said “Hmmm.” After consulting our onboard guide, she realized this was not our mom. After so many days of no whales, we didn’t stop to think that there may be more than one around! Luckily Monica knew what #3390 looked like and quickly realized our mistake so we didn’t waste too much time photographing the wrong whale (not that it wasn’t a beautiful whale, of course, just not the one we wanted).

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Stop, look, listen… by Dana Cusano

August 19, 2012

The weather is finally beginning to clear up. Even though it was overcast, the sea was calm and we left the dock at around 0715 with high hopes. We followed some survey track lines for a while without much luck. So we decided to stop and do what’s called a listening station; we stopped the boat, shut off the engine, and simply listened. After 10 minutes or so we finally heard a blow. A whale was somewhere nearby, so now all we needed to do was find it! Everyone looked in the direction of the sound and we waited for the whale to take its next breath while we all held ours. When we finally heard it again, we couldn’t see anything. The overcast sky along with the light drizzle of rain and the fog in the distance were hiding the whale we knew was there. Finally someone saw the flukes of a right whale…good news, and bad. Yes we found the whale, but it was several miles away and it fluked. Usually when a whale shows its flukes as it is diving, it is heading down for a longer dive. For right whales, they usually go down for about 12 minutes on such dives, but the New England Aquarium’s boat the Nereid followed a right whale just a few days ago that was doing over 25 minute dives! We headed in the direction that it went down, but we had lost it.

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First day out by Dana Cusano

August 14, 2012
We took advantage of our first nice day to take out the boat, set up the gear, and test it all out. Good news is we seemed to have worked out most of the kinks. Bad news is we have no whales still. The weather doesn’t look great for the foreseeable future, but hopefully that will change. Some right whales would be nice too!Continue reading

Welcome to Lubec, Maine by Dana Cusano

August 6, 2012

The easternmost town in the United States. Also home of a well known lighthouse on West Quoddy Head which is the easternmost point on the U.S. mainland. For those of you who may question, Lubec is not the easternmost city as that would be Eastport. One thing is for certain: it is definitely very far east. It pretty much sits on the border of Maine and Canada. You can even see Campobello Island, New Brunswick just across the FDR Memorial Bridge. Well…most days. Actually, not even today. I am quickly discovering Lubec has a bit of a fog problem…

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