EWS Update #3 (01/19/98)

01/05/97 - 01/19/98

New England Aquarium

Surveys For Right Whales

EWS Reports

(Page sponsored and maintained by WhaleNet)

You may remember that the last update mentioned our anticipation of a stable high pressure system that would calm the waters long enough to allow for a few surveys over a smooth ocean. Whenever we're presented with such luck, it's like having a glimpse at a very cool phenomenon which is usually shrouded by meteorological forces, not to mention that great veil, the sea. Before and after the peak of the season, we see whales day to day, here and there, yet it's not easy to visualize the big picture. But during the occassional string of days in January when the sea seems exhausted and can barely push itself onto the beach, when the turtles and the dolphins and schools of fish return to the surface, enjoying the lull after days breaking waves, on those still days this place really seems like a calving ground. Whales are popping up every few tracklines and under many of these big basking animals the dark shape of a nursing calf can be seen through the turbid coastal water.

After getting stuffed by the weather for several days (no flights 01/06 thru 01/08, rough water but flyable 01/09) we were given a window of 4 gorgeous days. We documented a dozen mother/calf pair sightings and half as many sightings of noncalving animals. After comparing notes with the other survey teams, I'd say it's a fair guess that 8-10 different mothers with calves have been seen this season. At least a dozen noncalving animals have been photo'd. Some of these sightings involved surface active groups (SAGs) with animals rolling around like puppies. One sighting, on 01/13, was of 5 animals swimming slowly at the surface, side by side, about 15NM southeast of the St. Johns River entrance channel (Jacksonville). Laura Morse, chief aerial observer (and leader of the infamous Fernandina Flygirls), noticed a large container ship approaching rapidly from several miles away. She contacted the ship directly on a VHF-marine radio and relayed the position of the whales to the helmsman. A voice came back through the crackling speaker of the radio acknowledging that he understood and would adjust course and speed as necessary. In the not-too-distant past the person on the bridge of a foreign flagged ship wouldn't have had a clue about what we were trying to convey during such a radio contact. But NAVTEX transmissions and informative Coast Guard broadcasts have gone a long way to educate mariners about right whales in this region.

Unfortunately, not all the news from the calving ground is good. On 01/10/98, Lisa Conger and her crew were flying surveys offshore of the EWS area when they spotted a right whale calf about 35NM east of Brunswick, GA. Although the animal appeared to be resting at the surface, it became apparent after circling a couple of times that it hadn't moved and was dead. Joe Roman and I were offshore biopsy darting* that day so we headed east to check out Lisa's report. From the air, Lisa managed to initiate a chain of phone calls contacting Blair Mase (NMFS), Barb Zoodsma and Mike Harris (GA-DNR), the EWS and FL-DEP teams (Cyndi Thomas, DEP, was flying that day). Mike arrived on a 41' cutter from Coast Guard Station Brunswick at about the same time Joe and I did. Fortunately the EWS aircraft also showed up to lend aerial support and they promptly located the calf. It was an eerie sight, floating upright, its small flukes undulating in the current. The lack of movement from the blowholes was the only indication that this little animal was not alive. As we approached closer, fetal folds-- creases remaining in the skin from being curled inside the womb, were still evident along its sides. The calf was obviously born recently and appeared to have died almost as recently. There were no outward signs of injury. Mike looped a line around the flukes of the 15' calf and the Coast Guard started the long process of slowly towing it to shore. Barb enlisted the help of the University of Georgia's research vessel Bulldog to take over towing operations from the Coast Guard. She managed to get the whale to Brunswick late that night. The 2600 pound calf then had to be hauled out and placed on a large flatbed trailer. After what I'm sure was a much too brief nap, Barb drove the calf to Gainesville, FL, for a necropsy early the next morning. Dr. Claus Buergelt was kind enough to secure the University of Florida's Vet. School facility for a first rate necropsy. And of course, Bob (what would we do without him) Bonde generously provided his services as leader of the necropsy team. Cathy Bonde and daughter, Julie, a fledgling biologist, came along to help. After all, what's a family to do when Dad is asked to cut up a dead whale on a beautiful Sunday morning? The support of the Bondes has been a great benefit to right whale over the past 10 years. As for the calf, all indications are that it died of natural complications at birth.

Well that about does it for now. We're just waiting on the next high pressure system to come along and give us few nice days of surveying.....

For an updated chart of our sightings and a table with data, please go to:


*Check out our site devoted to biopsy darting on Whalenet later this week.

Chris Slay
New England Aquarium


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