Right Whale

New England Aquarium

Surveys For Right Whales

EWS Reports 2000 - 2001

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2000 - 2001 Right Whale Research / Early Warning System Reports


Notes From the Calving Ground 2001

Chris Slay

Northern Right Whale Calving Ground, 01/03/01

Well into the best calving season in five years and all four survey teams are prowling 1000' over whale territory off the southeastern coast. The New England Aquarium's (NEAq) Early Warning System (EWS) survey crew, covers the epicenter of the calving ground-- 1000 square miles of shallow water adjacent to the westernmost stretch of coast on the eastern seaboard. On a road map that would be the 70 miles of coastline from Darien, GA to Ponte Vedra, FL, out 20 miles from shore. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), flies the area north of us, up to Savannah, GA. The state of Florida's Marine Research Institute (FMRI) covers the coast of Florida, south of our area, down to Ft. Pierce. These teams fly about twice a week during the calving season and have already logged a several flights. The Offshore Survey crew (OSS), is a joint effort between the two state agencies. They fly the area immediately offshore of ours, from our offshore margin, out another 20 miles. They fly about 4 times per week.

We survey every flyable day-- any day with winds less than 17 knots (~ 20 mph) and a ceiling high enough for us to maintain 1000'. The frequency of these flights is important because most of the ship traffic in the calving ground converges in this area, inbound or outbound, for one of the commercial ports of Brunswick, Fernandina or Jacksonville. Two Navy, Kings Bay and Mayport, are situated near the two latter ports and are home to many warships, including nuclear missile submarines. With most calving right whales congregating at our doorstep during the winter and with the Atlantic Fleet of "missile boats" housed just a 8 miles NW of our base, we're at ground zero... and feel right at home. We began flying on December 1 this year and sighted a breaching right whale less than two hours into our first survey. The paced hasn't slackened and we've seen whales all but one day that we've been able to complete the 5.5-hour survey. Unfortunately, we couldn't survey 15 days in December. Early in the month fog grounded us. Lately, strong winds have kept the planes idle. We didn't fly for 5 straight days around Christmas but have steadily climbed out of that hole, getting airborne several days, at the turn of the millennium, and despite less than optimal sea states we've seen a pile of whales, relatively speaking of course. Since the first of December, we've had 31 sightings, 11 of mothers with calves. That's in 18 flights. Last season we documented 6 sightings during 80 flights. Our calf count from all this activity stands at 5, possibly 6, pending word from the wizards of pattern recognition.

Last year there was one.

Needless to say, morale is better this year. Last season other species kept us entertained but this year they're just a sideshow, an enjoyable diversion. Over the course of two flights (12/07 - 12/08), we saw 900+ dolphins and 146 loggerhead sea turtles. Mola mola and leatherbacks dot the spreading expanse of blue under our wings but it's the glint of sun on wet black skin that really speeds our heartrate as the pilot banks the plane toward the target and we scrounge around to wrest cameras from their cases. We've photo'd more than a dozen different right whales in our area, besides the moms and calves. All of these animals are females of reproductive age. That's encouraging. The pager's buzzing and the EWS crew's most recent sighting appears to be about 4 miles offshore of my office. Got to go.

Calving Ground, 01/23/01

The last summary I sent was coursing through an unimaginable maze of fiber optic cable as my pager chirped an alert for yet another right whale sighting. That was on 01/03/01 and the message coming across the pager signaled the 32nd sighting for the EWS surveys. As of 01/23/01, 54 days into the season, we've flown 32 surveys and documented 66 sightings, 29 of which were moms and babes. At this point last year, we had 2 sightings and no photos of calves. Our photos show at least 13 animals have been added to the northern right whale population. The GADNR surveys add another calf to that, as they sighted Slash with a calf about a month after we photo'd her, calfless, hanging out with another adult female.

So-- 14 calves. And we have another dozen females here who could bring forth more. Counting Slash, we've photo'd 6 females this season, before and after calving. Half the calving whales sighted this year were seen before and after birth in a very small area, one continually crosshatched by routes of ships. The importance of this little parcel of ocean cannot be overstated. Rat (Slash, Rat-- you'd think we were heavy metal fans…) was seen without a calf on 12/27/00, off the south end of Amelia Island. On New Year's Day we photo'd her off of Jacksonville Beach, 14 nautical miles south of where she'd been seen. Between those two locations is the busiest commercial shipping channel between Cape Hatteras and Cape Canaveral. I suppose, many years ago, this was an ideal place for birthing and nursing a calf-- moderate water temperatures, few predators, shallow and somewhat protected from the worst the Atlantic has to offer-- as far up on the continental shelf as a whale can get and still be fully immersed. Now it seems somewhat dangerous, as evidenced by Lisa Conger's account of a near ship/collision in her last briefing from the Offshore Surveys (01/09). Our team also witnessed a situation rapidly developing into the type of harrowing close call that the Offshore crew observed. Fortunately, with the help of Brunswick, GA's harbor pilot, nothing so dramatic occurred. Here is a brief account related by Monica Zani and Erin LaBrecque, who were in the plane at the time.

"On the afternoon of January 4, 2001, the EWS survey team sighted 14 year-old female right whale #1701, Aphrodite, just south of the Brunswick ship channel, swimming north. While photographing the whale, we noticed two car carriers in the area. One ship was outbound, clear of the channel and heading southeast. It was approximately three nautical miles away and not a threat. The inbound ship was. When we first noticed the inbound carrier, it was 2 miles from the whale and closing. If #1701 kept swimming north, there was a very real possibility of her getting struck by the massive ship. We grabbed the VHF-radio and hailed the Brunswick harbor pilot as we watched his boat making its way to meet the car carrier. The pilot was extremely helpful and indicated that he was glad to be of service. He immediately understood the situation and called the ship. Promptly, we saw the car carrier change its course, making a 90-degree turn to the north, away from Aphrodite’s position. It then slowed, stopped and held station until the pilot boat rendezvoused with the ship. At this time, the ship was only one nautical mile from #1701. We continued our survey and approximately half an hour later we noticed the car carrier slowly easing its way into the channel with the pilot boat carefully leading the way."

With over 40 animals in the area, it's heartening to know that the harbor pilots, men who spend their lives ushering ships safely in and out of these ports, have a genuine interest in seeing that every right whale calf makes it out of the calving ground alive. On a lighter note, the efforts of our team-- Zani, LaBrecque, Candice Emmons and lead observer Alicia Windham-Reid-- have been augmented by visits from the Boston based crew-- Heather Chichester, Brenna Kraus, Amy Knowlton and Beth Pike. These northern interlopers we gladly tolerate, as they bring a keen eye for callosity patterns. They've been ID'ing animals from printed photos before the two engines on our Cessna 02 have had a chance to cool. These diehards are running film from morning surveys to the local one-hour photo shop during the mid-day pit stop… It's crazy fun to watch. Many of the whales are recognized from the air and the photos are only needed for verification. One of the more recognizable moms, Moon-- #1157-- is here with the 6th calf she's been seen with since 1980, when the Aquarium's project began. This calf has a sister, 14 years older, #1703, who is here with her first calf. New mothers, grandmothers-- any mother is good news for us.

More soon--

Brief Note On The Most Recent Right Whale Mortality

  As is usually the case with these matters, I had just settled into a nice lunch with two of my colleagues on Saturday, 01/27/01, when the pager, bane of a civilized existence, began it's shrill chirping:

  1407 hours,
Possible Dead Whale,
N 29 00 x W080 44,
Source USCG.

  Candi Emmons, Beth Pike and I, boxed our food, gathered cameras and went to the airfield where the ever-accommodating Environmental Aviation readied a Cessna 02 (Skymaster) for the 120 mile trip. We were making max cruise speed to an area a few miles off New Smyrna Beach, FL where the whale was reported to be, and were almost there, when we came across a healthy mother and calf right whale. After obtaining the necessary photo-data we continued a few miles down the coast to find a 35' male humpback floating high out of the water, ventral side up. This was at 1634 hours, N29 01.7 x W080 44.0. No outward sings of injury were visible. We photo'd the whale and headed back north about 4 miles offshore, thinking we might see more whales on the way home. Off Flagler Beach, Beth noticed about 20 gulls clustered into a tight bunch, creating a highly visible patch of white at that late hour--

  1727 hours,
N29 29.9 x W081 04.7

  As we circled, it was obvious that we were looking at the ventral side of a right whale calf. The gulls were sitting on the water, pecking down at the deflated carcass which was almost completely submerged, if not entirely below the surface. Shreds of white blubber floated out along the sides of the carcass but the black skin on the ventral side was intact. The flukes hung down, barely visible. Imagine our relief upon finding a humpback at the location originally reported. Imagine our disappointment when we circled on these gulls. Blair Mase, of NMFS, arranged for us to meet a USCG Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat the next morning at New Smyrna. Environmental Air flew Beth and I down to New Smyrna Sunday morning while Candi and the rest of the crew carried on the EWS survey effort. The USCG was, as always, extremely helpful. And they have good toys. We zipped up the coast in fast RHIB to the position we'd reported less than 24 hours earlier but found nothing. Bob and Chong Murphy (Enviro Air) searched the area flying 1/2-mile grids and cross-hatching, covering almost 100 square miles, without finding anything. The aerial search lasted for two hours. That not even a concentration of birds could be found leads me to conclude that the carcass descended further into the water column and out of reach of the gulls. We eventually had to give up so that the USCG could carry on with their mission The Flagler County Sheriff's Department had joined the effort and we caught a ride back to Flagler with them. Then they graciously transported us to the airport for our return trip to Fernandina. Bob Bonde, USF&W, was on the beach and ready for a necropsy. Indefatigable, and always willing to help with right whale necropsies-- I don't know what we do without that guy.

  Sadly enough, one of our favorite moms, #1151 (Mavynne), was seen by us recently without a calf. As far as we know, she was last seen on by the Offshore Survey team on 01/08, when she and her calf barely escaped being run over by a ship. The EWS next saw her on 01/21, without a calf. We saw her again yesterday-- no calf. Certainly this is purely circumstantial but it may be that Mavynne's calf didn't survive another encounter with a vessel. The photo-data shows this was one of the largest, most robust and healthy looking calves of the class of 2001.

  By Saturday, 01/27, the photo-data had pushed the calf count to 16. Then we discovered the dead calf. Fifteen calves-- still very good. Let's hope we don't lose any more. 

Calving Ground, 02/16/01

It's been over three weeks since my last vagrant notes from the calving ground. At that time, 23 January-- 14 mother/calf pairs had been documented; we'd scored 66 sightings and were starting to think this year was going to be one of our best. We haven't been disappointed. Seventy-eight days into the season our survey team has flown 16,000 nautical miles of track-lines, surveying east/west, east/west, day in and day out. That doesn't include the droning trip to and from the endpoints of the survey or the gyroscopic miles of circling on whales below. I've got to say-- this team is great.

Alicia Windham-Ried, Candi Emmons, Erin Labrecque, Monica Zani, Heather Chichester and Beth Pike have broken track into hard banking, prop-wash hopping, 89-degree turns for each of our 147 sightings this season. That's more than the record, in 1996, when the season total was 121. On all but one of those 147 occasions they've managed to get a lens on target, nail the focus and burn an identifiable image onto film; not all that easy after the day's best light has faded and you're slowing the shutter speed as much as you dare, careening 100 mph through the air waiting for a "difficult" whale to surface for only a second.

It's that work that gives us the information so important to understanding where all this is going. Getting the ID shots and matching every image to the cataloged photos is tiresome but the Fly Girls have been indefatigable. From our surveys we've identified 20 mothers with calves and William McClellan, UNCW, just sent scanned images of a mother and calf from his Carolina Surveys. Pretty nice aerials-- left side of the head, right side of the head… Heather, Beth and Philip Hamilton gave them a thorough going over in Boston and after a perplexing long while staring down at the light table, they were still having trouble matching the animal until they realized one of the slides was scanned backwards (thanks Bill!). With that sorted out, it was obvious that the UNCW crew had added calf number 21 to the roster.

With all the effort being expended by the FMRI team down the coast of Florida, the Offshore team to the east of us and the GA-DNR to the north, there may be more to come. Their photo-ID efforts will answer questions about how fast and far these nursing whales wander around the calving ground. The amount of ship traffic concentrated in the nearshore EWS survey area tempers the excitement of identifying so many whales in this small area. But aside from the dead calf seen on 27 January (cause of death undetermined), no floaters have been reported. It's obvious that many of the mariners along this coast are on their toes. On at least three occasions the last week, we made radio contact, directly of indirectly, to large vessels that changed course and/or altered speed to avoid right whales. The crew had difficulty making contact with a freighter, which was nearing the location of a mother/calf pair they had sighted. They called a dredge-ship nearby. The crew in the wheelhouse of the dredge was very familiar with the right whale situation, having worked in the area for several days. They managed to raise the freighter on VHF and relay the info being sent from the plane. The crew in the plane, Windham, Pike and Emmons, watched as the freighter changed course, about a half-mile from the pair.

Two days prior, the team contacted an inbound submarine and relayed the location of a mother and calf they'd just sighted 3.5 NM in front of the sub. They noted that the dark vessel slowed and posted extra observers on the conning tower. When the sub was within a few hundred meters of the pair, the whales dove and moved out of the sub's path.

On the same day, a car carrier outbound from Brunswick was observed, at a distance of 5 NM, making an extreme course change. The crew, Emmons, Zani and Pike, had the presence of mind to break track and investigate. When they arrived the ship was slowing and beginning to reestablish its easterly course. Four whales were found in the area the skipper of that ship avoided. As The Girls "worked" the whales, trying to get a good shot of each animal as it surfaced and rolled against the others in a "surface-active" group, more whales materialized. After an arduous hour of standing the Cessna-02 on its wingtip, pilot Bill Foster brought the plane to level and headed back to the track-line. They'd photographed at least 9 right whales in that one group, off the end of a ship channel. The Fly Girls plan on delivering a large bouquet flowers, via the harbor pilot, the next time that carrier calls.

No doubt, the Brunswick pilots had a lot to do with the awareness exhibited by the captain of that outbound ship. And through NAVTEX and Notice-to-Mariners transmissions, the US Coast Guard makes it difficult for a captain not to notice that he or she is in the calving ground of the most endangered of all the great whales.

That's a good thing.
During a five-day period, which encompasses all three of the above events, we had 24 sightings of mother/calf pairs and 11 sightings of adults, usually in groups of two or more. Under these circumstances, you really can't be too careful. 

Source of calf-count: NEAq, 02/16/01.

Calving Ground, 02/28/01

Below is an alert sent to all the folks operating large vessels in the calving ground and those working hard to keep us out of buckets of guts on the beach--  


  As you all know this is a very good year for right whales. The calf count keeps climbing and we're at a record 23 calves for a season with a couple more ID's pending. There is certainly cause for guarded optimism but it would be irresponsible of me to say that we're not facing a challenge. Without due diligence on the part of all involved in the right whale conservation effort down south, the possibility of a ship ventilating the rib cage of an unsuspecting whale is very real.

  Yesterday the EWS survey team located 10 different mother/calf pairs, plus 2 adults, between the St. Johns River Entrance and the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. That was during a flight abbreviated by morning fog. All 22 of these whales were found in an area measuring 9 nautical miles N/S by 13 nautical miles E/W. On a road map, you would find this area off of Amelia Island, FL. There has never been another day like this since research began in the calving ground in 1984. 

  The day prior, Monday 02/26, we had 7 mother/calf pairs and 3 adult whales, spread out around the St. Johns Entrance-- the channel for the port of Jacksonville. Today, there have already been 5 sightings, correction 6, and the team has only been up a couple of hours. It seems the whales are starting to congregate in this area, perhaps prior to beginning the migration north. Thanks to the hard work of the Navy, the USCG, the Corps of Engineers, the harbor pilots and the aerial survey teams, we have had a very successful winter, especially given the number of right whales around these channels. It is extremely important that we stay on the ball until this mass of whales is clear of the area. I have attached a simple table of our sightings from the last two weeks to give you a sense of how many whales there are in this place of intense ship traffic.  

As always, many thanks for your support and interest.

Calving Ground, 03/12/01

I last sent word on the last day of February and we were in the middle of a frenetic week. From 25 February through 03 March, we flew all 7 days, although 3 surveys were shortened due to morning fog. In that one week, we had 50 sightings; 43 were mother/calf pairs. On a single flight, we had 10 different mothers with calves, all within a few miles of each other. There's never been a week like that since the inception of surveys in the calving ground. We may have been witnessing a pre-migration staging event. The area off of Amelia Island appears to be where the animals "bunch-up" upon arriving in the calving ground, before stringing out along the Florida coast. A similar massing seems to occur at the end of season, before most of the animals head north along the eastern seaboard.

Weather kept us grounded from 04 - 06 March. Upon returning to the daily grind we have seen no more than 2 mother calf pairs during a flight. We were skunked on the 9th, only the fifth time that’s happened in almost 70 flights. There may still be 2-3 pairs south of us based on reports from FMRI, MRC and others down the coast but I'd say that most of the class of 2001 is somewhere between Savannah and Cape Cod. Hopefully they'll meet with better luck than #1160, the first confirmed vessel-struck whale of 2001.

Number #1160, or Bolo, named for the shape of her callosity pattern which resembles that primitive South American weapon, was sighted by us on 08 December, with another female, #1509 (Rat). These two were hanging out together during mid-December until Rat was seen alone on 27 December. Five days later she was sighted with a calf. It would be another two weeks before we saw Bolo again. When we came across her on 16 January she had also given birth. Her calf has solid white flukes and white-rimmed flippers, which makes the pair instantly recognizable. So when a calf of this description was reported by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, we were pretty sure we knew the pair in question. UNCW conducted aerial surveys for whales along the coast of the Carolinas during February. They sighted four different mother/calf pairs, including #1970, a mom not seen by the other teams. We appreciate UNCW adding this animal to the list for 2001. During the course of their surveys, they located #1160 off of Hilton Head Island, SC and reported that she had been struck by a boat. This was based on the observation of gruesome propeller cuts tracking across 10'-12' of her back. That was 16 February.

We had last seen this pair off of Amelia Island on 29 January, unscathed. She must have sustained the wounds along the coast of Georgia during the first half of February. Backtracking, Bolo returned to the EWS survey area and was sighted by our crew on 28 February, off Brunswick, GA. The next day, en route to their survey area, the OSS (Offshore) team sighted Bolo and her calf off Brunswick. Lisa Conger, leader of the OSS team, located the pair by water, enlisting the help of a GA-DNR enforcement vessel. She had a relatively good look at the cuts and reported that the injury doesn't appear life threatening. The lacerations go into the white blubber layer but not too deeply. None of the cuts appear deep enough to effect muscle tissue. From Conger's descriptions and from aerial photographs, it is evident that there is series of cuts along the whale's side, parallel to the ones on her back. This suggests that the vessel striking her was of the "twin-screw" variety. The length of this series of cuts, their size and the distance between each cut, indicate the boat was probably between 45 and 75 feet in length and moving very fast. It would be a reasonable guess that the vessel was a twin-diesel powered motor yacht, about 50' long. We've seen a lot of those boats bombing around the calving ground at speeds well over 20 knots. It looks like #1160 may have tried an evasive dive, as the forward half of her body has no outer signs of injury. The portion of her back that would arch up upon submerging is where she took the hit. She's also missing a dinner plate-sized chunk of tissue from the notch of her flukes. Had the calf taken this hit, it would be dead. I think the word Conger used was "lucky".

No doubt, there's some guesswork involved in understanding boat/whale encounters. It's hard to know how whales react to oncoming vessels. We have contacted ships from our aircraft on several occasions this season when we perceived there was a potential for collision. While we might observe a vessel making course or speed adjustments, it's difficult to ascertain what the whales hear beneath the surface and how they might attempt to avoid being run over. Two incidents come to mind that give us some information about whales' responding to ships.

On 10 February, at 1101 hours local, the EWS team noticed a vessel approaching a pair of whales they had finished photographing 2 minutes earlier. The vessel was headed toward the whales so they flew over the freighter to get an exact location, vessel name and to radio the ship. The mother and calf were surfacing/submerging, not making much forward progress, slowly headed south at N30 59.6 x 081 1.9. The freighter Winfield was outbound from Brunswick, N31 01.5 x W081 13.7, heading ESE, 1.9 nautical miles (NM) from the whales.

The crew was unable to get a response from the ship on VHF. When the ship was 1 NM from the whales the pair changed direction and began swimming NNE, across the path of the ship. Could this have been a response to detecting vessel noise? The skipper of the dredge Lindholm, knowledgeable about right whale conservation efforts, overheard the EWS crew's attempts to raise the Winfield. He responded and asked the EWS crew for a location and asked which way the Winfield should alter course. He then successfully raised the Winfield, explained the situation and the ship made the suggested course change to port (NE). No change is speed was apparent. When this course change was made, at approx. 1111 hours, the ship was .5 NM from the whales and closing. Until the course change was made, it appeared a collision was imminent. When the ship changed course the whales appeared to respond, possibly to a change in the acoustic signature of the vessel that occurred with the course change? The mother and calf turned and headed WSW. The dredge captain relayed an updated location from the EWS crew and gave the ship an "all clear" when they had passed the whales. At 1117 hours the ship went to a course of ~150 degrees. A rough speed check was done at this time. The ship covered 2.4 NM in 10 minutes: 14.4 knots.

Two days earlier, the EWS team began circling a mother and calf right whale for photos and noted a submarine approaching from the southeast. They estimated the sub to be ~3.5 NM away, heading NW, directly to the whale's position (exact times and locations are omitted). The pair was at the surface, swimming slowly to the south. The EWS crew continued circling on the whales while calling the sub via VHF. Contact was made and the sub's crew stated that they would post an additional lookout and reduce speed to 10 knots. The submarine was observed slowing at this time, further reducing speed as it neared the whales. Observers estimated sub's speed at less than 10 knots. When the submarine was approximately 200 meters from the pair, the whales dove and apparently changed direction, almost 180 degrees. When they resurfaced, less than a minute later, they were approximately 300 meters off the starboard beam of the submarine, heading NE. At this time submarine's crew transmitted that they would maintain a reduced speed.

Events such as these will be much less common as the season comes to a close. Halfway through today's survey and only one mother/calf pair has been sighted. It's starting to feel like we're seeing the last of the stragglers at the end of a party.

By the way, we now have a calf count of 26, minus the one mortality.

Calving Ground, 03/30/01

The Fly Girls struggled through two hours of crummy weather today trying to find a clearing where whales might yet tarry. I left my desk and stepped onto the veranda when I heard the opposing engines of the O2 coming up the beach. I leaned against the railing just in time to see the black aircraft disappear into low scud-- not a hopeful sight. Tomorrow doesn't look too promising either so this remarkable season comes to an unremarkable end. And that's fine. There's a thing or two we've got to do before leaving this island.

The last whales seen down south were sighted on consecutive days last weekend, at the north end of our survey area, making steady progress to the north. These two mother/calf pairs will be navigating some tough areas going back to New England, including the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, near the beach where a ship-killed calf stranded two weeks ago. This male calf was already 25' long, probably 7'-8' longer than when it was born less than 4 months ago. Amazing. Hate to lose such a robust addition to the species. That leaves us with 24 moms and calves, eventually bound for the Bay of Fundy. It should be a wild summer there.

And like the whales, we'll all leave Florida, headed for the next gig. The 2001 EWS team-- the infamous Fly Girls-- handled the chaos of this year with skill and grace. They rarely had more than 1 in 10 days for their own pursuits, eschewing time off to keep up with a flood of data while flying over 30 thousand miles. We put the plane aloft on 89 days of a 121-day season, sighted and photographed whales on 234 occasions and documented the presence of 532 ships utilizing the area during the hours of our flights. Then there's the 65,000 cownose rays; 6,500 dolphins; 2,400 loggerhead turtles, so on and so forth...

Counting calves, more than 62 right whales were identified in our little patch of water, including all but one of this year's 26 newborns. That's almost cause for celebration, which reminds me, I'd better get on down the road.

Thanks to all those involved in the calving ground effort and to all of you who have shown support through your interest.

  Chris Slay

By the way, we now have a calf count of 26, minus the one mortality.


Data Table of Sightings

Map of 99-00 Right Whale Sightings


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