Bay of Fundy

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!

Until next time…

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!

Eubalaena, where art thou?

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

But where are you, right whale?
It is you that we seek
Who numbers so few
Whose future seems bleak

Eubalaena we’ve watched you
And followed you close
All whales need saviors
But you need us most

For thirty-four summers
Why, even this past
You have gathered in Fundy
You have gathered en masse

But this year is different
This year is odd
There is scant food to be found
Scarcely one copepod

This year you’re gone
You found a new place
And we cannot find you
You left us no trace

Eubalaena, where art thou?
If you are not here
No one can find you
Our hearts fill with fear

Eubalaena, where art thou?
Come back to the Bay
For we cannot protect you
Now that you’ve gone away

poem with animal drawings next to verses

Not the *right* whales

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?!

Nope. The channel was a bit choppy, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate what the Bay is doing. When we got out of the channel however, we immediately noticed it was not smooth flat seas with light winds. It was about a sea state 2 already, which is definitely workable but not the calm state we were expecting/hoping to see (see our previous blog post, A Lesson on Sea State, to get an idea of what the sea states look like). Will soon spotted some blows, and even though they didn’t look like typical right whale blows, we are always willing to investigate anything and everything. Especially when there are so few whales around, during this season for example! When we made it over to the whales we quickly realized they were three humpback whales, resting at the surface.

whale fluke with brown spots
The “muddy” flukes of a humpback whale. Photo: Dana Cusano
white and blue whale fluke
Flukes of a humpback whale. Notice I was having a hard time keeping the camera straight! Photo: Dana Cusano

Shortly after, only about half an hour from these photos, we were in a sea state 3 and it wasn’t even 11 o’clock! Grace called up the Nereid to see what they were experiencing farther out in the Bay and they also had quite a nasty sea state. They have the ability to check the weather on their boat and the forecast had indeed changed. Now they were calling for 15 knot winds in the afternoon going to 20 knots later on this evening. That’s a far cry from light winds and way too windy for us to work comfortably and safely on our exposed little Selkie.

We decided to call it a day after only 3 hours out. We cast the CTD for good measure and headed home. By that time it had already turned into a sea state 4…we had a bumpy ride back, albeit a short one thankfully. We have a windy few days ahead of us so we won’t be back out into the Bay for a little while. Hopefully next time mother nature behaves a little better and does what the meteorologists think she will!

Perhaps the fog is lifting?

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…

map of Lubec Channel
The yellow house is the location of the field station, the red star is where the mom/calf pair was found, and the yellow star is where they SHOULD be!

Very few right whales have ever been spotted in this area, and while it is pretty neat to have them so close to shore, it was also pretty nerve-wracking for us. Just past the bridge from Lubec to Campobello there is a lot of lobster/fishing gear in the water which would put them at a high risk for entanglement. Luckily they headed in the opposite direction toward Eastport where they likely (hopefully) headed back out towards more open water. They haven’t been spotted in the area again, and we haven’t had a good day to go out and survey the Bay to check for them. I can only hope they stick around for when we can make it out next. It would be great to finally get some BOF 2013 data! Read more about the Nereid’s experience on the New England Aquarium’s research blog.

Slow start

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!

Our day out wasn’t all disappointment however. Not only did Tricia get to see a whale for the first time, but she got to see a breaching basking shark! Not many people can say that! Unfortunately as soon as I got the camera out he promptly disappeared, but check out the website for our friends at the Shark Identification Network, founded by the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, for great photos and information about the sharks in the area.

The weather for the weekend looks promising, so hopefully my next post will be filled with great news about all the mom/calf pairs that have shown up! How is that for optimism?