Southeast U.S.

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


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

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?

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 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

[10] Acousonde website