Cape Cod Bay

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!

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!

Another day, another calf

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 and calf whales feeding
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!

The travels of tag B004 (“Scoby”)

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.

Now for the bad news…we stuck around for hours, never hearing a ping from Scoby. One possibility for this is that the placement of the tag on the animal was such that the antenna was not breaking the surface when the animal came up to take a breath. Our right whale was also almost exclusively subsurface feeding, which meant it only surfaced for a few breaths here and there, but never came out of the water much even when it did. After over 4 hours with the whale, the seas had picked up to a point where we were forced to leave for home. Talk about a stressful decision! Luckily the next few days were supposed to be alright for weather, so we could come back and search for it.

More bad news…the weather the next day decided NOT to cooperate. We weren’t able to go out on the water, so we searched from the beaches high and low. The ping from the transmitter can be heard miles and miles away, so when we didn’t hear anything all day (we didn’t stop searching until after 9pm!) we obviously weren’t very happy. We would continue the search the next day.

So yesterday we woke up during the wee hours of the morning (4am to be exact) and were launched by 7am to resume our search. Using photographs from the day of the tagging, we were actually able to locate our tagged whale. More bad news…the tag was not on it as far as we could tell. The fact that the tag was almost certainly off and yet we still weren’t hearing it was not good. We had been trying so hard to be optimistic (maybe the tag slipped to his belly and it was still on, but we just couldn’t hear it!) but this didn’t look good. We set up the CCS plane with tracking gear the day before, so they listened for it all day as well. We looked and looked all day long, and when the CCS plane was finished for the day (they also heard nothing), the NOAA plane offered to come help us look. We did some tests and it turns out that they could hear one of our other transmitters 17 miles away…but they didn’t get a single ping from our lost Scoby…

It was getting late and the winds were picking up, so we headed in. All the while still listening and hoping. Ever trying to be optimistic, we have not ruled out the possibility that the antenna or transmitter was damaged somehow (definitely possible) and perhaps our tag will wash up on shore. Or maybe it is still on a whale’s belly! If someone were to pick it up, it has Susan’s contact info written on it and hopefully they will let us know.

Tell your friends in the area to keep their eyes out, we want our Scoby back!

poster with contact information and lost tag description

Sneaky subsurface skimmers

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…

map of cape cod bay
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.