Right Whale

New England Aquarium

Surveys For Right Whales

EWS Reports 1999 - 2000

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1999 - 2000 Right Whale Research / Early Warning System Reports


The Last Update: EWS 2000

There's a T.S. Eliot poem that concludes "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper."-- too bad that's what comes to mind when thinking back on the close of right whale calving season 2000. There was no 9th inning rally, no last lap pass to raise our spirits about the season. The EWS team scored its final right whale sighting on 03/01. There wasn't a confirmed sighting by any of the survey teams after 03/08 and nothing to add to the calf count for 2000-- which stands at ONE. There was the calf off Charleston that went unphotographed due to rough-as-a-cobb sea conditions but we can't officially count that youngster without photo data. It does give us hope that at least one mother and calf may show up in the Bay of Fundy this summer. We can't rely on our one confirmed mom, #1334, for making an appearance since she doesn't travel to those inshore summer habitats. If we've bottomed out this year, don't let that ring doom for the population as a whole. A line from another 20th century bard comes to mind (indulge me), "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." (Dylan Thomas). I don't think any of us working with these animals are ready to throw in the towel. Many of us don't want to readily admit that these whales might be on the ropes but there's definitely blood on the mat. Well, not exactly blood but a right whale does leave a visible oil slick, exerting itself, with two strands of 1/2" polypro cutting 6" into it.

So we'll remain vigilant and press for what needs to be done to protect these last remaining right whales because next year could blow the doors off previous calving seasons. There are a lot of young females in this population coming into their reproductive years and many older females who are due for a calf. If the conditions are right, perhaps if we "de-oscillate" as one colleague put it, referring to global weather patterns, we might find ourselves scrambling to keep 20 calves out of harms way next winter.

And the season had its interesting points. There were over 20 different right whales haunting the southeastern coast, including the six animals photo'd during the four sightings we had in our foray to the Carolinas. And after the photos from all the teams have been matched to the catalog, perhaps the number will climb to nearly 30? We were certainly a little disappointed to have flown 83 days and almost 26,000 miles of transect lines to have put but seven sightings down as originating from the EWS surveys. However, we logged our seventh year collecting data on the 1000 square miles of ocean that is so important to the most endangered of all whales. One day, many years down the road, folks may see that we sighted 2,747 loggerhead sea turtles during a season and hopefully marvel at how many more sea turtles are around during the year 2060? Maybe 35 leatherbacks and 69 Kemp's ridleys will seem paltry. Or perhaps they'll lament how barren the sea is by then when they note that we saw 145 mola molas and an estimated 137,000 cow-nose rays. Maybe the 440 large military and commercial vessels we documented will be considered light traffic? It's possible that humpbacks will colonize southeastern waters and the 10 sightings we had of that species will be regarded as a glimpse at the vanguard of a wave? After being adjusted for effort, how will the results of an aerial survey project in 2060 compare with our count of 7,525 bottlenose dolphins?

Well, I suppose for the time being we'll focus on 2001. I'd like to say thank you to all of you who have sent encouraging words throughout the season and to our tireless pilots and aircraft mechanics who kept us going. I especially want to thank our team, Emmons, LaBrecque, Newcomer, Roose, Windham and Zani, for working so diligently and maintaining such a great collective attitude during a long, somewhat discouraging, season. Just you wait 'til next year'

Best regards,

Chris Slay, New England Aquarium

EWS Update #3 2/23/2000

It seems like the full moon was passing when I last sent word from the calving ground. During the past four weeks we've tried everything to put a few more sightings on the chart, with some luck, but nothing's been revealed which changes this season's infamous status as the worst calving season since systematic monitoring of this population began almost twenty years ago. In the early years, the calving ground received little coverage but mothers and calves would always turn up in the Bay of Fundy come summer. I would be surprised if we see a single calf in the Bay this summer, since #1334, our only identified mom, is one of those "offshore" whales that doesn't haunt the inshore summer habitats. It's interesting that most of the females giving birth during the past three seasons belong to this offshore component of the population. What's going on with the inshore component? It's also interesting to note that these offshore whales appear healthy and robust while in recent years many of the inshore animals have shown signs of what may be malnutrition-- poor skin condition, sometimes characterized by discolored fungal-like swaths and lesions on the skin. Often these inshore animals just don't look as fat as there more wide-ranging counterparts. Whale #1334, the cow we've made three attempts to tag, has a big roll of fat behind her blowholes and actually displays a slight concave depression along her dorsal midline, her mass spreading out from the center of her back, across her voluminous girth. This particular whale was photographed off Iceland 10 years ago. Perhaps the offshore animals have a more stable food supply, found in areas less effected by the climatological anomalies which induce more dramatic sea temperature changes in nearshore areas? I'm engaging in more than a bit of supposition here but I think most of my colleagues would agree that these are some of the factors which may account for the sorry state of reproduction we're witnessing in northern right whales.

Last month we were wondering if there might be a more simple explanation. Perhaps there were whales lingering up the coast in cooler water? With a little help from our friends at NMFS and the loan of a fine observer from the Offshore Survey Team, we organized an expedition with the ambitious goal of covering the entire coast of the Carolinas, out 20 - 30 nautical miles. Bill McClellan and his crew from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington were tasked with covering the nearshore areas off North Carolina. I quickly learned that enthusiasm to survey an area doesn't have any effect on the weather visited upon that region. We had our team assembled and ready to roll on 01/24/00 but were unable to get off the ground until several days later. Strong winds never allowed us north to Hatteras.

Stephanie Martin and Michael Newcomer from the New England Aquarium and Laura Morse from the Offshore Team comprised the Carolina reconnaissance force, all with more experience than any of them probably want to admit. They completed 7 days of surveying between 01/27/00 and 02/08/00, covering from Savannah, GA to about 20NM north of Wilmington, NC. They found right whales on 4 of those days and a humpback on another day. Whales on 5 of 7 days-- pretty good. On 02/01, after a long morning surveying Savannah to Charleston the crew landed for lunch. Not long after resuming their survey they sighted a right whale calf approximately 20NM NE of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It was a very difficult sighting for the crew to work due to Beaufort 5 sea conditions and very turbid water. Both Newcomer and Morse had glimpses of the calf but were never able to photograph it. They circled for approximately an hour and never saw the mom. It is likely she was there and went unobserved. Sometimes we see calves at the surface and only catch a glimpse of mom every 5-10 minutes, in good conditions. Often it appears mom is supporting the calf from below. At any rate, it's fortunate they were able to make a species ID at all, as pilot Buzz Kraus circled in what were 20-30 knot gusts at 750'. It suggests that there are two right whale calves for 2000. But bear in mind, #1334 and her calf were seen off Ossabow Island on 01/22/00 and again off St. Simons Island on 02/07/00. It is possible that she could have moved 90NM north in 10 days and then 120NM south in 7 days; but this seems unlikely.

The Carolina team included the area off Charleston in their flight plan for the two days following the calf sighting. They never saw the calf again but they did find 5 right whales in a group about 30NM east of Charleston Harbor on 02/02. On 02/03, they relocated the group with an additional member about 7NM SSE of the previous day's location. And on 02/07, two right whales were located by the team a few miles inshore of where the larger groups had been seen the week before. Coast Guard Group Charleston was very eager to help with informing vessel traffic in the area and transmitted Broadcast Notice to Mariners, over marine-VHF, regarding the presence of right whales.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we were all standing-by, hoping to tag female with a calf. But #1334 was the only game in town. She was located by the EWS survey team on 02/07, off of St. Simons Island, about 35NM south of where she'd been seen the day Amy Knowlton and I tried to sink my Zodiac. We had no better luck on 02/07. Song of the Whale sailed into the area that evening and managed find #1334 in the darkness by listening for the sound of her breathing. It was a still night with only a breath of wind and from where they were anchored they could hear her blowing until the sunrise gave shape to her form at the surface of a mirror-smooth sea. Knowlton and I made several more attempts to get within tagging range but she and her calf exhibited an unwillingness to be part of our project so we gave up to a freshening northeast wind. Knowlton opted for tea-time and a warm, dry sail back to Fernandina, smiling as she waved goodbye to me in my bucking little craft.

As for the EWS, aside from #1334, we've scored two sightings of humpbacks and two sightings of a pair of right whales that may have been among those seen off Charleston. On 01/31, we found a long-dead humpback floating near Cumberland Island. Joe Contillo (from NMFS Miami Lab), Candice Emmons (EWS team) and I went to investigate. Through a solid lack of judgement, we managed to tie a 30' animal to 17' boat with 200' of 3/8" line and tow it 3 miles to the beach. Then Contillo, in keeping with the tenor of the day, exhibited an impressive disregard for sensible behavior and jumped into the surf as the sunset on a cold winter afternoon. Did I say "tenor of the day"? He waded the line ashore where it was secured to a rock. Thus the animal was stranded at high water, allowing the GA-DNR to assess its condition and look for any obvious clues about cause of death. None were found.

Very preliminary analysis indicates that approximately 16 individual right whales have been seen along the southeastern US coast, counting the Charleston whales and excluding #1334. Of these, half have tentatively been identified as females of reproductive age although most have yet to bear their first young. Maybe these whales aren't nutritionally fit enough to sustain a calf and they reabsorbed or aborted their fetuses? Perhaps they weren't successful in breeding or conceiving for reasons connected with oceanographic changes which effect plankton production in the usual spring and summer feeding habitats?

But oceanographic conditions change and this allows for the possibility that things will be different next year. Maybe we'll see a repeat of 1996 when 21 cows gave birth and as many as 17 calves survived the season. Almost as many calves were added to the population the following year. Of course this is somewhat optimistic and doesn't take into consideration the alarming number of animals seen entangled in northeastern fishing gear during the past two years or shipping related mortality. Still, there are many young animals in this population coming into their breeding years and we'll keep working to ensure they are given a chance to pull the tribe out of its slump.

Best Regards from Fernandina,

Chris Slay

EWS Update #2 2/3/2000

The last update sent from Fernandina Beach covered calving ground activity through the 6th of January. During the 21 days since, what little activity we've had seems exciting against the backdrop of such an uneventful season. The EWS team has flown 13 complete surveys over the past 3 weeks, 9 of them flown with decent sighting conditions (Beaufort sea state <3). All that flat water hasn't given us a single whale in the EWS area, though there have been a few on the outskirts.

01/12/00 - the Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI) survey team found a single right whale off Ponte Vedra Beach, about 2NM south of our southernmost trackline and 3NM from shore. Later that day our team made it to that location to find one whale had become two and that they had moved NE a couple of miles. Stephanie Martin, Morgan Roose and I hitched-up our 5.5 meter rigid-hull inflatable, Jupiter, to the truck and struck off for Mayport, at the mouth of the St. Johns River. We launched at about 1430 hours and made the 20NM run to the last reported location of the whales in an efficient manner (i.e., hauling-ass).

After a fruitless search from 2 meters above sea level we called for help. The EWS crew returned to the area to find the pair, which had apparently changed their heading, moving several miles SE. The aerial team vectored us to the whales. We shut down a hundred meters from the pair and observed their lazy interactions until sunset at which time we took a small skin sample from the "unfamiliar" whale. The other whale Steph recognized as an animal frequently seen this past summer in the Bay of Fundy-- thus one that has almost certainly been darted. The pair never paid us any mind and continued their languid progression to the east. They were most likely the two whales encountered the next day by the Offshore Survey team, on the same latitude, about 14NM east of where we left them at nightfall the previous evening. After storing the biopsy gear, we pointed Jupiter toward the lights of Mayport and made for home.

For the next 10 days we completed 5 surveys with very nice sea conditions, to no avail. Then, on 01/22/00, the sighting system pagers were beeping and buzzing as if agitated at being disturbed after a long dormancy. Early that morning, an observer stationed on a hopper dredge working in the Savannah area reported seeing a whale near the dredge-ship as the vessel plowed its way offshore to deposit its spoil. Lisa Conger diverted her Offshore crew north to photograph the whale. About halfway up the Georgia coast, they sighted a mother/calf pair, a few miles off Ossabow Island. They had scored the first sighting of a calf for this season. There is one more right whale in the world. (Unfortunately there is also one less-- the entangled floater off Rhode Island). Later in the morning the FMRI team found two right whales (no calves) off St. Augustine and a sportfisherman reported as many 6 right whales together, approximately 20NM off Jekyll Island. Lisa interviewed the captain of that vessel and says that, indeed, there were probably 6 whales there and one was almost certainly a calf. Two more right whales in the world.

Amy Knowlton and I hitched Jupiter to the truck and headed up the Interstate in response to the mother/calf sighting. We made the 100-mile trip in a most efficient manner, eventually finding ourselves at a lonely landing on the Ogeechee River. We put in and headed for the sea. A strong ebb tide bore us down river-- between tall spartina grass and mud banks-- in as efficient a manner as our 90-horse Honda would allow. The spreading mouth of the river issued us into Ossabow Sound which we traversed without fetching up on one of the innumerable mudflats. We threaded our way through a fleet of shrimp-trawlers grazing between the breakers, before clearing the continent and skating onto the open ocean at 30 knots. In short order, we arrived at the location where the whales had been seen several hours earlier. We called for air support, confident that with the help of the EWS and Offshore survey teams we'd have a chance to tag the mom and get the Song of the Whale and her crew tracking by midnight. It was about then, as we listened for the sound of a whale breathing somewhere out across the gray sea, feeling generally hopeful, that I noticed water about my feet. Hmm. Well I best crank the engine and run this excess out through the self-bailing scuppers in the transom. Probably shipped a little water over the stern when we stopped. I put the engine in gear and it immediately died. Hmm. Started again. Shoved the shifter forward, engine immediately died. Damn. I noticed the water had risen in the boat. Actually things which weren't secured were beginning to float about-- Pelican cases, dry boxes and the like. Tried the engine again. Died. Amy and I looked at each other and broke into laughter. By the time the planes arrived we'd be perched on the pontoons looking like rats stranded on marsh wrack. I quickly carved a milk jug into a bailing scoop, flung it at Knowlton and inspected the scuppers and outboard. Something must be fouling the prop but where is the water coming from? The stern line had been piled into the aft well of the boat and a bitter-end had snaked through one of the scuppers, fouling the prop and allowing water to flow backwards through the scupper hole. I sorted the mess while Amy bailed between guffaws. We managed to regain our composure just as the planes arrived.

The Offshore crew directed us to the pair, a couple of miles distant. When we arrived the calf appeared to be riding along on mom's back as mom swam at a snails' pace beneath the surface. Junior slid off to one side and they swam along in our direction. We had positioned ourselves about 150 meters ahead of them hoping mom would pass close enough to allow us to tag. As they passed (slightly out of range) we could see the calf was but a sausage, not 5 meters long, perhaps not 4.5, and fetal creases still marked its flank. This calf appeared to have been born within days of our encounter. We resolved to use a very passive "approach" (a non-approach really) with this pair, never motoring above idle. Soon it became obvious that it wasn't going to be a day for tagging. We watched the pair moving slowly through the sea as we all rolled into the shadow of another day and the lights of the trawlers to the west marked our passage home.

We've only had one decent survey since that evening and nobody's turned up a whale. All the survey teams have compared notes and photos and it seems that there are, or have been, about a dozen animals in the calving ground. We remain optimistic about our chances whenever the weather clears. Currently, a northeaster pounds the beach outside our field station and there's no workable weather due for a few more days. We'll let you know if we have any luck next week.

Chris Slay

EWS Update #1 1/20/2000

7 Jan. 2000 - Greetings from Fernandina Beach, FL. We're back to our winter routine of tracing those well worn tracklines-- head east towards an empty, slightly arched horizon, drone along for 12 minutes, turn south, level out, turn west towards a sulphurous puff of smoke which marks a papermill, drone along, 11 minutes, turn south, level out and turn east again, leaving the coast behind. Eleven minutes later it's a thin line on the western horizon, seventeen miles distant. Twelve more minutes and the desolate beach of Cumberland Island is back under our wing. And we plod on like that, the ocean's countenance changing as we move from the shallow, turbid waters off Georgia to the deeper blue off Florida. In a single survey we skirt the lonely shorelines of unmolested barrier islands and the wall to wall concrete of Jacksonville Beach, its scurrying automobiles glinting in the sun. Some days that's about all the movement we notice-- days when the sea folds over on itself every few feet, raked by the wind. Other days, more placid, the surface abounds with dolphins, fish and birds. Turtles dot the flat expanse and boaters charge here and there in search of something for the frying pan. Of course what we want to find is one of those black behemoths lolling in the sun, reflecting light like black chrome. So far we've had that privilege but three times, once with the help of the Offshore Survey team.

We flew our first survey on 12/15/99 and have been in the air on all but three of the twenty-two days since (today we're waiting for a break in the rain). Nine of those days were very nice for surveying but we've only had two sightings, both about 10 miles offshore. On 12/19, we photo'd two right whales rolling around off Cumberland Island and on 12/31/99 we had a single animal just south of the St. Marys River Entrance. Two days later the Offshore team, coming in for lunch, ran across what was probably the same animal, inshore of where it had been two days prior. Our team visited the scene after being tipped of by the Offshore crew. Otherwise it^s been pretty quiet in the calving ground. No calves have been seen.

So we wait for the next high-pressure system to stall over us, presenting 4-5 days of light winds. Surely whales'll be popping up everywhere. We're hoping to tag another mother with a calf this year and spend a couple of weeks trailing her, noting and video-taping her behavior, recording the duration of her surface/dive intervals and establishing a track of her movement. The crew of the tracking vessel is starting to get cabin fever and our aerial observers are wondering about my promise of whales in January. A couple of mother/calf right whales would help stave off a mutinous situation here in Fernandina.

And I'd hate to lose this crew. They're aces, every one. Alicia Windham-Reid is back again as our team leader. A native Floridian (another endangered species), she brings with her two years of experience with the EWS and years of experience in marine mammalogy. She works with manatees when not working with us. Michael Newcomer recently joined our crew from the West Coast. He has been flying right whale surveys in the southeast for three years with CSA, a firm contracted by the Navy to survey areas outside the EWS bailiwick. He's worked on marine mammal projects from the Arctic to Antarctica. The remainder of the cadre is new to our survey scheme although they are by no means strangers to this sort of work. Californian Candi Emmons has done survey work with Orcas in the Pacific Northwest and dolphins in the Bahamas. Erin LaBrecque, from New Hampshire, recently completed lengthy marine mammal research cruises for NMFS in the Gulf and the Atlantic after a stint at the New England Aquarium. Morgan Roose, a fisheries biologist from Seattle, has been leading trips for various environmental education and eco-tourism outfits, conveying lessons learned on marine mammal and sea turtle research projects. For our efforts, Monica Zani sacrificed winter in Boston where she works as a Senior Naturalist on the New England Aquarium's whale watch vessels and in the Science at Sea program. She also holds a 100-ton captain's license and runs the Aquarium's 65' research vessel Doc Edgerton.

This is a restless bunch with a wild eyes^ perhaps given to violence? And they keep asking me "when do the whales get here?". I hope they show up soon.

All the best for 2000,

Chris Slay
New England Aquarium


Data Table of Sightings

Map of 99-00 Right Whale Sightings


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