Right Whale Mom/Calf

The “Who’s Who” update

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:

#1611 (Clover): a 29 year old female, her mom is #1034. This is Clover’s 4th calf.

#1950: a female first seen in 1989 making her at least 26 years old, though nothing is known about her year of birth or family history. This is her 5th calf.

#2611 (Picasso): a 19 year old female, her mother is #2610. This is Picasso’s 3rd calf.

#3139 (Diablo): a 14 year old female, her mother is #1039 (Links). Links’ mom is #1316 (Whiskers). This is Diablo’s 2nd calf.

#3693: a female first seen in 2006, making her at least 9 years old, but this is another whale we know little about. This is her first calf.

No info on pedigrees for any of these moms, but another huge shout out to the New England Aquarium and the Right Whale Catalog for everything we do know. For info on the other moms down here this year, see our first Who’s Who blog post. More soon!

Something borrowed

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.

three lab members on boat
Grace, Tony, and myself aboard the R/V R3 searching for mother calf pairs. Photo: Alex Loer

Sunday was yet another day that ended up being a lot nicer than forecast, and our friends from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) stepped in to help. They were nice enough to let us borrow their boat for the day, the R/V Orion, along with Jen Jakush, a Biological Scientist with FWC. The waters were (mostly) smooth on our way out, and pretty soon the plane had a mom/calf pair for us ~17 nautical miles away. It took us a little while to get there, but we made it and we were able to locate the pair. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a tag on. We did however have the calf pop up unexpectedly right next to the boat for a couple of breaths before joining mom again. Too bad he didn’t stick around just a bit longer, as we were not quite fast enough to get the hydrophone over the side. Luckily, Alex had his GoPro camera on and Jen had the video camera ready, so at least we were able to capture this exciting moment on film.

Lab member video recording a whale
Jen was quick on her feet to capture this moment on video. Photo: Alex Loer
calf on the side of boat
A very curious calf. Photo: Alex Loer

Soon after our encounter, the wind began to pick up and we decided to start our long trek back before the seas picked up too. The weather won’t be nice enough to go out for a few days (theoretically), but by then we will have our Selkie back. In the meantime, we were certainly appreciative of the help we got from our friends down here!

Who’s who SEUS 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:

#1604: while we don’t know her exact age, this female is over 29 years old. We also don’t know anything about her mother or father. This is her 5th calf.

#1701 (Aphrodite): a 28 year old female, her mother is #1219 who died in 1989. This is Aphrodite’s 6th calf.

#1703 (Wolf): also 28 years old, her mother is #1157 (Moon) and her father is #1516. This is Wolf’s 4th calf.

#2145: a 24 year old female, her mother is # 1145 (Grand Teton) and her father is #1150 (Gemini). This is her 5th calf.

#2605 (Smoke): a 19 year old female, her mother is #1705 (Phoenix, whom we followed here in the southeast with her 2012 calf) and her father is #1227 (Silver). Phoenix has a very interesting story, with her mother genetically #1151, but behaviorally #1004. See the Frasier et al. 2010 paper “Reciprocal Exchange and Subsequent Adoption of Calves by Two North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis)” for more on her story. This is Smoke’s 3rd calf.

two whales just above the surface of the water
#1705 with her 2012 calf close to the beach. Photo: Pete Duley

#3646: a 9 year old female, her mother is #1946 (whom we followed with here in the southeast with her 2013 calf). Her maternal grandmother is #1246 (Loligo) and her maternal grandfather is #1037. This is her 1st calf.

That’s all for now, but hopefully I will have more moms to report on soon!

Familiar friends

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!

calf head above water
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.

close up of whale calf chin
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?

Until next year

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 far less data than I had hoped…anyway, that’s it on the right whale field work until January, so check back then!

Oh hi, cachalot

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.

fluke up terminal dive of sperm whale

From as far away as we were, and being that the flukes were pretty unremarkable, we weren’t positive at the time that what we had was in fact a sperm whale. Well considering they can stay down for over an hour, we were either going to have to assume that it was (which is bad form) or we could do what we do best and drop a hydrophone over the side of the boat to listen. And that is what we did. And this is what we heard.

Using a spectrogram, we can visualize what we are hearing as well. Here is a spectrogram of the above audio clip.

spectrogram of sperm whale clicks

This animal was likely a male – mature male sperm whales forage at higher latitudes, often alone, while the larger pods consisting of females, calves, and juveniles spend all of their time in the tropics and sub-tropics. Sperm whale social vocalizations include stereotyped, repetitive patterns of clicks called codas. The solidarity of the males in these higher latitude habitats means that their vocal repertoire is different than that of the female/calf/juvenile social groups – codas are not heard here. The clicks we were hearing from our whale were therefore likely being used for echolocation while the animal was searching for food. Pretty neat, yes? Yes.

So while we are bummed about the paucity of right whales, I got to hear a sperm whale that was somewhere below me. I’ll take it.

Right whales, great friends, and…pirates?

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.

collage of whale being tagged
Still shot 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.

team members posing while dressed as pirates
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”.

Why sperm whales are bad news

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:

sperm whale crushing 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…

One more round

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!

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey of Scoby

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!

lab member holding tag
Really happy to be reunited!
four lab members one holding tag one holding sculpture
Hannah, myself, Jess, and Leanna proudly holding our returned tag and the medusa glass sculpture Lance Arnold gave to the Park’s Lab!