S.E.U.S. 2015

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?