S.E.U.S. 2014

Fun, sun, and a sea state one

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.

open water golden color
Like liquid gold. Photo: Dana Cusano

Not only were we treated to wonderful weather and seas, we got crystal clear views of a plethora of species. Some were even firsts for me!

cannonball jellyfish just below water surface
Cannonball jellyfish. Photo: Dana Cusano
fish with fin sticking out of water
Possibly some sort of mackerel? Photo: Dana Cusano
turtle in water
Kemps ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered species. Photo: Dana Cusano
large fish with fin sticking out of water
Possibly the biggest mola, or ocean sunfish, any of us had ever seen. Photo: Dana Cusano
dolphin fin out of water
A group of active bottlenose dolphins. Photo: Dana Cusano
two dolphins below surface of water
And even a group of Atlantic spotted dolphins! Definitely an unexpected, but pleasant surprise! Photo: Dana Cusano
close up of dolphin
Atlantic spotted dolphin juvenile. Photo: Dana Cusano

We also got to see a leatherback turtle, a loggerhead turtle, a parasitic jaeger and a giant group of feeding birds that included several species of shearwaters, gulls, terns, and gannets. That’s quite a list, and two days I will never forget!

Oh I almost forgot the best part! WE GOT A TAG ON! Under our permit, we are allowed to tag calves and on our very last day, the calf of #2746 presented us with the perfect opportunity. Naturally, we took it!

whale calf breaching
A very active calf! Photo: Dana Cusano
tag on back of whale
A beautiful sight. Photo: Lisa Conger

What a great way to end the season. Now we have a month to analyze our data and get ready for the Cape Cod field season, starting April 1st. Check back then for a final mom count and updates on more tagging adventures!

Another great day in Florida

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.

head of whale sticking out of water
Here is a big Right Whale mother. Most of what you see is her head, she’s swimming left to right. You can get a good look at the callosities, one of the features used to identify individuals of the species. Look for a blog post about callosities later on. Photo by Pete Duley/NOAA

We were treated to a peculiar sight if you’ve never seen it before: the belly of the whale. The mother rolled over while we were watching and Pete snapped a good shot. While right whales are mostly dark all over, some individuals have white bellies. Others have white chins and actually, this mother has both. You can see her upside down chin toward the left part of the photo.

belly of whale
This mother has a white belly and a white chin. Photo by Pete Duley/NOAA

Early in our trip we caught a glimpse of a Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus). Manx are on the smaller side for shearwaters, visibly smaller at sea than the Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis). Manx are also distinguishable by their jet black coloring above, and white below. They also beat their wings noticeably faster than a Great Shearwater. Below, you can see those wings have a high aspect ratio, that is: they are long and skinny. This type of wing is taken to the extreme in a bird like an albatross. When there isn’t a lot of wind, these birds have a lot of flapping to do to take off, but once they get going they are quite fast. On a windy day, shearwaters have little use for flapping, instead they turn into the wind to gain some altitude and then zoom downwards scaling the tops of waves and surfing down the other side in the troughs. They even occasionally drag a wing tip over the surface of the water, displaying their near perfect control.

bird flying over open water
A Manx Shearwater flew past us early in the day. Photo by Will Cioffi.

As graceful as they are on the wing, shearwaters are also good swimmers. While they don’t dive from as great heights as the Northern Gannet (see last blog post), they do make underwater forays in search of small schooling fish. You can see some Cory’s Shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea) doing just that in this excellent BBC footage.

Manx shearwaters have a very long migration route which crosses the equator. Many Manx breed in the UK [1], but some breed in the Western North Atlantic as well. Manx cover a lot of ocean as they migrate from their colonies to various feeding grounds up and down the eastern seaboard of North and South America, as well as the west coast of Africa and Europe [1,2]. Manx are also known to be impressively long lived in at least one case. An adult was caught and “ringed” (a small tag put around one of the legs) on May 17th 1957 on Bardsey Island, Wales. On May 5th 2008, just shy of 51 years later the same bird was caught and noted by a ringer on the very same island. Think of how many thousands of miles this bird might have flown over its life in between stops in Wales! You can see this and other records for UK birds here.

Not everything that flies over the water is a bird. Nathan noticed this invertebrate on my shoulder at some point today. Dragonflies are strong fliers even over water, but it seems like this one was taking a small rest on the boat today. After taking a few photos for a positive id later, I moved it from my shoulder to another part of the boat so we didn’t have to worry about disturbing it. From time to time I checked and saw it stayed in the same spot for most of the day, but as we were coming back to port in Fernandina, it had already flown off on its way. Back at the house I took a quick look at bugguide.net and I believe this was an Harlquin Darner (Gomphaeschna furcillata). This is a rather small species of darner, but as you can see below, still a good sized dragonfly. You can also see it is a male, because it has long cerci at the tail end.

dragonfly on orange jacket
Nathan noticed this stowaway on my jacket. Photo by Nathan Merchant
dragonfly sitting on hand
If you look at the tail, you can see the long cerci that mark this as a male dragonfly and make up part of the clasping apartus. Photo by Nathan Merchant

A larger species of darner, Anax junius, has even been tagged with a radio transmitter in order to track their movements [3]. The transmitter was only about 300mg! You can see below a researcher gluing a tiny radio tracker to a dragonfly. Fourteen dragonflies were tagged in this study for up to 14 days. These individuals undertook a new migration an average of every 3 days, moving an average of 58 kilometers over 6 days [3].

researcher attaching transmitter to dragonfly
A researcher attaches a radio transmitter to a dragonfly. Photo from Wikelski, M., Moskowitz, D., Adelman, J.S., Cochran, J., Wilcove, D.S., & May, M.L. 2006. Simple rules guide dragonfly migration. Biology Letters, 2, 325-329.

We actually use this same technology to keep track of the Acousonde acoustic tags once they are deployed on whales. Below you can see one of our radio transmitters with my hand for scale. The yellow tape is holding a magnet to the transmitter, which keeps it inactive for storage. To activate, all we have to do is remove the magnet and a switch turns on the transmitter.

transmitter held against a wall
Our radio transmitters are slightly larger than the ones used on dragonflies. Photo by Dana Cusano

We see Bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) almost every day and today was no exception. I didn’t happen to get any pictures of them today, but Dana got some great pictures a couple of weeks ago. At that time, some dolphins were actually swimming quite near some of the whales we were observing. Sometimes dolphins will swim right alongside and in front of larger baleen whales for long periods of time. Some dolphins will also travel in the pressure waves created by the wakes of boats. It has been suggested that this behavior around boats may give the dolphins an energetic benefit [4], but it isn’t entirely clear why they swim near baleen whales.

three dolphin fins sticking out of water next to each other
Do these dolphins know each other? Studies in Shark Bay, Australia have found that Tursiops aduncus will form tight male-male alliances of 2 or 3 individuals [5]. Photo by Dana Cusano.
torn dorsal fin of dolphin
This dolphin has quite a distinctive dorsal fin. I wonder if we’ll see it again. Photo by Dana Cusano.
dolphin fluke and dorsal fin sticking out of water
It is an odd angle, but this dolphin is swimming in toward the camera. You can see its tail flukes rising in the background and its dorsal fin straight on in the foreground. The dolphin appears to have some hitchhikers on its dorsal fin. Photo by Dana Cusano.

We noticed that one of the dolphins had something attached to the dorsal fin. There are a couple different animals that attach themselves to cetaceans. Jen Jakush from the Florida FIsh and Wildlife Conservation Commission suggested that it might be some Xenobalanus, a genus of barnacle that sometimes attaches to dolphins [6]. These barnacles are crustaceans and are related to the kind you might find on pylons down at the docks, but they do look quite a bit different. While you might think this species is parasitic, these barnacles are actually thought to be phoretic, or just along for the ride. Barnacles are suspension feeders, so they aren’t eating the dolphins skin, but rather plankton they find in the water column as the dolphin carries them from place to place.

All and all a successful day on the water with some great right whale sightings, which afford us a good opportunity for data collection. As always, there were plenty of other interesting sights as we transited to and from the whales. On our way home we were treated to a nice sunset over Fernandina Beach.

sunset on the surface of the water
Time to head for home a the sun goes down. Photo by Will Cioffi.

P.S. If you were disappointed in the quality of the pictures I took of the jaeger last time, here’s a better picture Pete snapped today. This bird flew by as we were taking data on the right whales.

[1] Freeman, R., Dean, B., Kirk, H., Leonard, K., Phillips, R. A., Perrins, C. M. & Guilford, T. 2013. Predictive ethoinformatics reveals the complex migratory behaviour of a pelagic seabird, the Manx Shearwater. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 10(84), 20130279.

[2] Guilford, T., Meade, J., Willis, J., Phillips, R. A., Boyle, D., Roberts, S., Collett, M., Freeman, R. & Perrins, C. M. 2009. Migration and stopover in a small pelagic seabird, the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus: insights from machine learning. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276(1660), 1215–1223.

[3] Wikelski, M., Moskowitz, D., Adelman, J. S., Cochran, J., Wilcove, D. S., & May, M. L. 2006. Simple rules guide dragonfly migration. Biology Letters, 2, 325-329.

[4] Williams, T. M., Friedl, W. A., Fong, M. L., Yamada, R. M., Sedivy, P., & Haun, J. E. 1992. Travel at low energetic cost by swimming and wave-riding bottlenose dolphins. Nature, 355(6363), 821-823.

[5] Connor, R. C., Smolker, R. A., & Richards, A. F. 1992. Two levels of alliance formation among male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 89(3), 987-990.

[6] Toth-Brown, J., Hohn, A. A. 2007. Occurrence of the barnacle, Xenobalanus globicipitis, on coastal Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncates) in New Jersey. Crustaceana 80 (10): 1271-1279

[7] BBC footage of swimming shearwaters

[8] Longevity records for Britain & Ireland

[9] Harlequin Darner (Gomphaeschna furcillata) at bugguide.net

[10] Acousonde website

Curious encounters of the whale kind

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…

Yes, we were carrying out photo-ID work on an adult and juvenile (not a mother/calf this time), when the adult whale approached us, slowly and gracefully, and proceeded to gradually circle the boat, surfacing often, each time pausing to take a languid peek at the boat, and perhaps the bizarre land mammals onboard. The water was placid, almost flat. The air was still. We spent thirty or forty minutes like this, enchanted by the unhurried curiosity of the whale. An intoxicating serenity descended upon the boat. Okay, maybe I imagined that last bit. Also, we got some great video, acoustic recordings, and stills.

close up of mouth of whale
Photo: Dana Cusano

To me, at least, this was bliss. I joined Susan’s lab as a postdoc last October, and this is my first season of right whale fieldwork. Oh, to be in sunny Florida in January! Face-to-face with colossal whales! Listening to their weird sounds! You get the idea. Actually, even Grace and Pete with their decades of field experience were taken aback by the experience. These ‘curious approaches’ are typically only seen in juvenile whales; it’s very unusual to see such behavior in an adult. Anyway. Eventually, big whale and little whale moseyed off toward the horizon and the spell lifted. We packed up our gear. Possibly we had lunch.

The End.

A trip to Brunswick

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.

dock and water with bridge to the left
The view from the brand new boat launch under the Sidney Lanier bridge. Photo: Dana Cusano
lighthouse across water
The St. Simons Lighthouse on the south side of the island
open water in foreground bridge in background
Back behind us as we left the channel, we got a great view of the Sidney Lanier bridge

One of the advantages of spending a lot of time on the water looking for whales is you see a lot of other interesting things as well. While underway we’re always scanning the horizon for signs of whales, but it is a perfect way to spot some cool birds as well. Look for a blog post later about some of the other creatures we sight on our trips, but for now enjoy some of these birds we spotted on the water today.

Before we even left the river, we spotted some American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrohynchos). Grace noted that these pelicans are always seen on the marsh side of the shore and never on the ocean side. We often see Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentals) on the beach or out offshore . Below are pictures of both species for comparison.

flock of white pelicans on sand
We saw these White Pelicans on our way out of the Brunswick River
Brown pelican flying
Here is a Brown Pelican as seen from the beach.

It wasn’t a bird or a whale, but one of our first sightings today was a mylar balloon. Discarded balloons often get blown or washed into the ocean and actually pose quite a threat to wildlife. Eventually, the printing on these balloons comes off and a transparent polymer is left that can look like gelatinous invertebrates (such as jellies and other similar animals). Sea turtles can consume these types of animals and have been found with balloons in their stomach [2]. (We do see turtles on our trips sometimes; look for more information on these fascinating animals in a later blog post.) Plastic debris is increasingly recognized as a source of mortality for all sorts of marine life by entanglement, accidental ingestion, and even direct absorption of microplastics and other chemicals added to the polymers during manufacture. Some researchers have called for plastics to be labeled toxic waste, because of the chemicals they can contain, to tighten disposal regulations, and to free up Superfund money for cleaning up plastic pollution in aquatic environments [3]. You can listen to the author speaking on Living on Earth, a radio show distributed by PRI [4]. Though we could never get them all, when we see balloons we try our best to pick them up and dispose of them on land, which you can see Nathan doing below.

man holding deflated balloon
Nathan is not happy about this marine debris.

A short time later, we passed three Razorbills (Alca torda). This is a beautiful Alcid, the group of birds that includes Puffins and the now extinct Great Auk. Razorbills tend to be a colder water species and aren’t a very frequent sight for us. Pete got a great picture as we passed by. These birds look similar to two species of Murres (also Alcids), but has slightly different plumage and a deeper bill. Recently there was an unusually large number of Razorbill sightings in the southeast U.S. A system maintained by the Lab of eBird published a short article on their website about this [5]. Anyone can submit sightings to eBird and volunteer experts help to validate the sightings. A massive amount of data has been collected and is freely available to scientists and anyone else interested. We’ve uploaded our sightings to eBird to contribute to what is known about the range of this fascinating bird.

two birds swimming in water
Razorbills are excellent swimmers above and below the water. Photo: Pete Duley/NOAA

We spotted two Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus) on our trip today. One was in the act of kleptoparasitism, a common feeding technique for Jaegers. As their name implies, Parasitic Jaegers often parasitize smaller birds such as terns and some species of gulls by stealing their food (that’s the “klepto-” part). This involves a lot of chasing and harassing and sometimes the targeted bird will drop its catch in order to get away, leaving a meal for the Jaeger. You can watch this happening on this youtube video. Our looks were distant so we didn’t get great photos, but you can check out some photos or even listen to Jaeger sounds at the Audubon website. As the website points out, Parasitic Jaegers breed in the Tundra, but non-breeding birds range widely in the both hemispheres.

brid flying just above water surface
One of the Parasitic Jaegers seen today.

As we traveled today, we saw quite a view feeding frenzies of Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus). These birds are in the Sulidae family, which also holds the famous Blue-Footed Booby. You can see the resemblance especially well in the head. Gannets dive from great heights into the water in order to catch small schooling fish. When there are a lot of fish around, huge groups of Gannets can produce spectacular views for us on the boat. Sometimes we see dolphins feeding on the same fish, surfacing under a cloud of birds. The birds can be seen from quite far away, especially when there are large numbers, and so this is a great way to find feeding animals of all sorts.

flock of birds flying above water
We saw more than a few Gannets today. Photo: Pete Duley/NOAA
white bird floating in water
Gannets in adult plumage have yellow heads and striking black wingtips.
two birds diving in water
In this short animation, you can see a dive from start to splashdown. Two Gannets one after the other are diving in close proximity here, so it’s easy to see the different stages as the birds fold their wings back into a more streamlined position.
bird diving into water
Here’s another Gannet diving
white bird pointed down at water while diving
It’s a little blurry, but look at the shape of this Gannet’s body a split second before impact with the water.

Thanks for reading, and look for more posts soon as we continue the field season! See below for some links and references mentioned in the post.
References and links

[1] Hain JHW, Hampp JD, McKenney SA, Albert JA, Kenney RD. 2013. Swim Speed, Behavior, and Movement of North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Coastal Waters of Northeastern Florida, USA. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54340. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054340

[2] Tomás J, Guitart R, Mateo R, Raga JA. 2002. Marine debris ingestion in loggerhead sea turtles, Caretta caretta, from the Western Mediterranean. Marine Polution Bulletin. 44: 211-216.

[3] Rochman CM, Browne MA, Halpern BS, Hentschel BT, Hoh E, Karapanagioti HK, Rios-Mendoza LM, Takada H, Teh S, Thompson RC. 2013. Policy: Classify plastic waste as hazardous. Nature 494(7436): 169-171.

[4] Living on Earth, March 8th, 2013: The Hazards of Plastic Waste

[5] Razorbills invade Florida

[6] Youtube video of a Parasitic Jaeger in the act of kleptoparasitism.

[7] Parasitic Jaeger on the Audubon website.

An update on moms

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:

#1301 (Half Note): a 31 year old female, Half Note was born in 1983. While she has had 3 calves prior to this season, none of them have survived to adulthood. Unfortunately, no one quite knows why. We will all be rooting for her this season though! Another fun fact about Half Note is that her mother, #1001 (Fermata), was the first whale to be added to the right whale catalog! Her father is #1033.

#2040 (Naevus): a 24 year old female born in 1990. Naevus’ mother is #1140 (Wart), who was “famous” last year for having her calf in Cape Cod Bay. Naevus’ father is unknown.

#2123 (Couplet): a 23 year old female, Couplet was born in 1991. Her mother is #1123 (Sonnet) and her grandmother is #1142 (Kleenex). Couplet’s father was #1144 (Dingle).

#2503 (Boomerang): a 19 year old female born in 1995. Her mother is #1503 (Trilogy) and her grandmother is #1240 (Baldy). Baldy is at least 40 and was just spotted last year. Boomerang’s father is #1043.

#2645 (Insignia): an 18 year old female born in 1996. Her mother is #1245 (Slalom) and her grandmother is Wart. That means Insignia’s mother Slalom is the sister of Naevus. Although we don’t know the father of either of the sisters, it ultimately makes Naevus the aunt of Insignia! Pretty neat! I often wonder if they know…Insignia’s father is #1170 (Legs).

This is one of the things that makes the work the New England Aquarium and Trent University does so great: we are able to know so much about the ancestry of these individuals. And it is only going to get better! Check back at the end of the season for a SEUS mom family tree!

New season, new goals

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!

Unfortunately, we have been here for two weeks now and have had some bad luck with the weather. We have only managed to get out three times…very reminiscent of our recent Bay of Fundy days! There are three mother/calf pairs sighted down here so far, but we have not had much luck finding them with enough daylight to tag on two of the days. On the day we did have light on our side, we were unfortunately unsuccessful in our attempts. It is not an easy task, just ask Will!

Despite little success so far, yesterday we were lucky enough to find a SAG of right whales, or a surface active group, which is two or more whales socializing at the surface. SAGs are believed to play a role in mating, but they almost certainly serve another purpose as well. See the New England Aquarium‘s website for much more information on right whales and SAGs. We got some great photos, and even threw in a hydrophone to eavesdrop a bit. All in all, despite not getting any mom/calf data, it was at least an exciting day!

Whale fin sticking out of water
A right whale shows off a pectoral fin during a SAG. Photo: Dana Cusano