Right Whale Mom/Calf

2017 SEUS Field Season

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.

north atlantic right whale mom and calf tagged

NARW mother-calf pair at SEUS area. Successful tag deployment attempt on mum. Photo by Susan Parks.  

We were all very satisfied with the deployment, and hopping for more interesting information about our target species. However, on tag-recovery day, an unexpected turn of events: it turns out the calf might have crushed the tag and therefore we might never have access to the one single 2017 SEUS DTag data…

It is like they say: whale happens.

north atlantic right whale calf at water surface

The lovely, precious and notorious tag crusher. How can anyone be mad at 6 tonnes of pure right whale love? Photo by Susan Parks.   

Julia Dombroski


A wild ride

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.

six tagged whales
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.

whale calf in water
A curious calf came to check us out. Check out that chunky skin. Photo: D. Cusano
whale calf sticking head out of water
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!

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

Bon Voyage, Balaenids!

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.

The weather was gorgeous, and we found our first mom-calf pair of the day (#2145 and calf) within an hour of leaving the dock.  Unfortunately, 2145 wasn’t being terribly cooperative, even when we took long breaks between tagging attempts.  It also didn’t help that she was so concentrated on her food: feeding whales can be particularly difficult to tag because they only leave their rostrums poking out during high skim feeding.

whale calf nose slightly poking out of water
It’s always surprising that such a big animal can keep so much of its body underwater and leave just the tiniest bit poking out.
whale head sticking out of water
This is about as good as it gets in terms of looking into a whale’s mouth! Not awesome for tagging their backs, though.
whale calf feeding
2145’s calf was mimicking mom and skim feeding right behind her. Too cute!

We were just about to leave the area and leave 2145 to her own devices to survey for more whales when another mom-calf pair showed up!  1604 was feeding by herself, which made things tricky because without the visual cue of a calf right next to the mom, it can be hard to pick out who’s who.  Luckily Grace recognized her as a mom, and we were able to get a solid tag placement on her back!

whale being tagged
Alex landed this fantastic tag placement on 1604!

The tag stayed on for about a half hour before coming off, and we then decided to head north where we had heard of a sighting of yet another mom-calf pair, 1703 (“Wolf”) and her calf.

We observed Wolf and her calf for about an hour and a half, and they were traveling fairly quickly and not really taking breaks that suggested they were in the mood to be approached.  Since we had already had a successful tag deployment and we were beginning to edge into twilight, we decided to head back to the dock and call it a day.

So in total, we saw three mom-calf pairs and probably 15-20 other individuals in our little corner of Cape Cod Bay.  Combined with the near-perfect sea conditions, not too shabby for my last day of right whale fieldwork as a member of the Parks Lab.

I sure am going to miss this.


fluke of a whale calf out of water
2145 showed us her fluke on a terminal dive. See you around North Atlantic Right Whales!

Feeding time

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.

We searched around for more than half of the day to try and locate a mom/calf pair, but as it got later and later we made the decision to tag a single animal rather than go home with no data at all. Any data is precious and valuable, especially for a population this endangered! So we went to a small aggregation of feeding whales in the southern end of the Bay and picked one that was so preoccupied with subsurface skim feeding that it didn’t even seem to notice us sidle right up alongside it. It was an ideal situation, the perfect approach, and a solid tag attachment. In other words, it couldn’t have gone smoother.

right whale feeding at surface of water
A subsurface skim feeding right whale slowly comes to the surface as we glide alone beside it. You can even see the baleen from its open mouth beneath the surface! Photo: D. Cusano
tag on a whale
Tag on! Again! Photo D. Cusano

As Alex so eloquently put it, tagging has two anxieties: getting the tag on, and getting it back! Once all the excitement of the deployment subsides, we then have to stay with the whale and track the tag.

two team members on boat looking for tagged whale
Alex listening for the tag while I keep my eyes on the prize.
tagged whale at the water's surface
Watching and waiting. And stressing just a bit…Photo: D. Cusano

This is always the worst part for me…will it stay on? Will we find it? Is the tag recording properly? Is the transmitter functioning alright? So many things to stress about, and in the case of our tagging on Saturday, 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 1 second to do it. Then it fell off, we got it back on board safely, I checked that it recorded, and all was well with the world. Until next time.

100 miles

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.

whale with scars on head and back
#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.

Map of cap cod with lines showing boat path
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:

nose of whale calf above water
A spectacular look at #1604’s calf. Photo: D. Cusano

And this:

tagging stick above whale with tag on back of whale
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!

Patience and persistence pay off

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.

right whale and calf just below surface of water
An amazing view of #1611 and her calf just subsurface. Photo: A. Loer

Under our permit we are allowed just 3 tagging attempts on a pair in order to minimize any stress to the animals, so each failed attempt isn’t just a blow to our pride, it is one major strike against us. Our first attempt was a good one, but not successful. Not a huge problem, we have dealt with that before, so we waited a bit and then slowly moved back in. Suddenly the perfect moment presented itself – the calf came up right next to the boat, slowly and calmly. But we must remember that tagging is HARD and life is cruel, so what happened next? Oh the tag fell out of the holder and plopped into the water next to the calf of course. Then what? The calf came right back up in the same spot, ready for tagging again, the tag still bobbing around nearby. Oh awesome, then what? The calf did a nice dive with a little turn of the fluke, effectively getting me wet just to rub some salt in the wound. Ouch.

Well that was not a good moment, no. And I have never felt more like just crawling under a blanket and taking a nap. But we are field biologists, huzzah, so we pick ourselves back up and we move on to attempt number three obviously! Patience and persistence rewarded.

whale calf being tagged
Moving in to tag the calf of #1611. Photo: D. Cusano
successfully tagged calf
Tag on! Photo: D. Cusano

That’ll do. Until next time, I will be doing what I love most – analyzing data.

One more time

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?

I got in last week and we have made it out on the water once so far. The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) plane was flying so we had aerial coverage of the Bay which is always a huge bonus. They also had a couple of their boats, the R/V’s Shearwater and Ibis, out on the water and the New England Aquarium‘s R/V Callisto was out too. With all that support, we had the Bay well covered. Even better news is that the right whales showed up to the party.

whale just above surface of water with boat in distance
A right whale in CCB, with the R/V Shearwater in the background. Photo: L. Conger

The lack of whales was a big concern for us coming in this year – the previous aerial surveys for the year have seen a handful of whales down near Rhode Island Sound, including #1611 (Clover) & calf, but few to no whales in CCB. So while only 17 right whales were spotted on Monday, that hopefully means the whales are starting to move in to their spring feeding ground. No one spotted Clover and calf, or any mom/calf pair for that matter, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on their way. Now we can’t wait to get back out and get some tags on!

That’s a wrap

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:

#1620 (Mantis): a female first seen in 1986, making her at least 29, although nothing else is known about her pedigree. This is her 6th calf.

#2223 (Calvin): a 23 year old female and one of the most famous North Atlantic right whales. Calvin’s mother was #1223 (Delilah) who was struck and killed by a large ship in the Bay of Fundy before Calvin was even weaned. Researchers feared that Calvin wouldn’t survive without the milk and guidance from her mother that she still needed. Clearly however, Calvin beat the odds and is now having calves of her own – this is her 3rd calf. How is that for a success story?! Fun fact: she is named after the character from the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” for being so independent and resourceful. Read about all of the other things that make Calvin both unique and a huge benefit to right whale researchers in this blog post from the New England Aquarium. If her story touches your heart, be sure to consider sponsoring her!

#2790: a female first seen in 1997, making her at least 18 years old. Since she was first seen as an adult, we are not sure who her mother is and know nothing else about her family tree. This is her 4th calf.

#3292: a 13 year old female and the whale we got our 23 hour tag on! Her mother is #1310 (Amanda) and her father is #1320 (Mohawk). This is her 2nd calf.

whale before tagging
#3292 this year before tagging. Photo: S. Parks

#3420 (Platypus): an 11 year old female, this is her first calf! Her mother is #2460 (Monarch) and her father is #1037.

We are currently getting ready for the 2015 CCB field season which is only 2 weeks away. Hopefully by that time there will be more moms to report and all the snow will be gone…until then, good luck to all the teams still in the southeast! I already forget what it feels like to be warm.


How do you measure happiness?

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

whale calf just above water surface
The 2015 calf of #3292 Photo: S. Parks

By the successful attachment of a suction-cup tag.

tag being placed on back of whale
Successful deployment of a DTAG on #3292. Photo: H. Foley

By a beautiful sunset on the R/V Stellwagen while we track an overnight tag.

red sunset at water line
Photo: D. Cusano

By a home-made latte onboard…

coffee cup
The perfect start to any day. Thanks Sean Sullivan

By the relocation of right whale mother the following day close to the channel entrance with a tag still attached and recording successfully. Too specific?

tag on the back of a whale
Tag still on! Photo: Z. Swaim

By the amount of data collected: 23 hours of DTAG data, plus loads of images, videos, and GPS tracks.

lab member looking through data
Heather working hard.

Now let’s just hope we can get a few more days like this in before the season ends!

Something blue

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.

As Grace and Pete head out, the Duke team is trickling in, some of them fresh off of the boat from research in Antarctica. Check out their blog for a first-hand perspective of this exciting expedition. Today we got the R/V RT Barber in the water and are ready for our first good weather day to get out and tag some whales. More soon!

boat on trailer
I don’t think we will need a bigger boat