Right Whale

New England Aquarium

Surveys For Right Whales

EWS Reports 2001 - 2002

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2001 - 2002 Right Whale Research / Early Warning System Reports


Notes From the Right Whale Calving Ground 2002

Fernandina Beach, FL 22 February 2002

It's been a long time since word was sent from the calving ground (01/08/02). I was going on about people-- thanking Grace (and Sir d. Gillespie, Esq., IFAW) for the computer data-logging system-- going on about aircraft and war because there wasn't much whale action remembering last year, forgetting the year before. The season is past half over and there are 15 or more right whale calves at mother's side, all along the coast-- Hatteras to Canaveral-- up high on the shelf, most within 10 fathoms, some still hanging where they always do, between Savannah and St Augustine, with a strong presence off American Beach, FL, taking solace and shelter in the shallows, basking and nursing on the nice days, holding their own, subsurface, on the nasty ones.

We've culled a dozen calves from photos in the EWS area at the head of the Georgia Bight. Another three we didn't catch are compliments of survey leaders Emily Argo, flying offshore and to the north (Wildlife Trust), Alicia Windham-Reid, to the south (FMRI) and Bill McClellan, flying along the coast of NC and SC, (UNCW). All babes look healthy and strong and 15 is 3 more the average dozen per year. We'll take it.

We've become accustomed to seeing some of these moms on a regular basis. Right whale #1430, our first whale of the season (12/02), has been sighted by the EWS survey 18 times, most recently this morning off of Brunswick, GA. She likes it here. Four cows were sighted before and after calving, #1622 providing the most exact date of calving. We sighted her on 02/06, with no calf. Four days later, we came across her, calf at her side. I could go on in my overcooked style about these details but for the sake of realism, I'll quote from the team's data summaries-- the quickly penned comments of weary flyers carrying home the drone of flying only to start the laborious task of formatting data, summarizing air-time and mileage and sightings, filing photos etc, etc:

5 sites (4 m/c, 2 adult/juv)
278 tursiops
53 caretta
16 mola, etc etc

"Great day. Flew full survey, NNW 5 knots almost all day. Started on the 30 38 line and flew N. Finished southern half after lunch.

Sighting #4-- m/c.
Found whales and began to circle when we noticed an RV (45' sportfisher), approx 1.5NM E and heading W at 20 knots. Headed for m/c pair. Both mom / calf had been doing short dives when we noticed the RV. Both were barely subsurface (mom below calf) as RV approached. We broke from circling and headed for the RV, hoping to get course alteration, (no time for radio). RV did not alter course and both mom/calf dove under bow of RV. Resurfaced approx 45 seconds later-- heading quickly away." Mo Zani

7 sites (4 m/c, 3 sites of singles)
1 humpback
243 tursiops
70-80 stenella
37 caretta
3 mola, etc etc

"flew a.m. 30 38 to N, p.m. 30 35 to S.
military ship interaction w/ sighting #6, contacted directly VHF 16, very responsive, confirmed visual on whale, no need to change course or speed.
a.m. weather little snotty
p.m. weather beautiful"
Alison Stimpert
And lots of this:

"large fog bank N. started S but lost vis at Mayport. Went 999 in search of good vis "

"Very late start due to fog busy day, 3 m/c, 1 single. Also lots of Cc and Rb. Rb mostly in groups of 10-30, w/ some groups to 300. R. bonasus, oh yeah!"

"Had a problem with inverter after lunch. Inverter shut off and we could not get it back on. We tried switching it on and off and switching plugs. No luck. Ran as long as we could (to 10% batt power) before shutting down. Began recording on paper data sheets."

A woeful thing, returning to paper. I was worried about mutiny but, fortunately, the computer was back on line and we were automatic. But written comments are always a must. Despite detailed weather and sightings data, it's nice read that the morning was snotty and the afternoon was beautiful; or that our favorite non-protected species, Rhinoptera bonasus, was passing through.

Sometimes it's more serious:

"animal trailing line, clearly entangled. Line ran out both sides of the mouth and looped loosely over the back, behind the blowholes. A long length ran down the left side, trailing from the mouth and running past the flukes, 60 meters of line in all? hailed research vessel on VHF " P. Duley

On 02/12, Erin LaBrecque and I were on the water, biopsy darting, when we saw our survey aircraft, 424 Alpha Fox, enter the area in the course of their work. Coincidentally, we witnessed the plane quickly bank hard, standing on a wing tip, wings near vertical. They had something interesting-- a single whale, less rotund than the cows. This late in the season the non-calvers are usually gone, leaving only the moms and babes and the occasional pair of females that make the trip south but don't make babies. When they turned over the spot where the whale had surfaced, the crew aloft that day-- Duley, Stimpert, Zani-- noticed a long length of green line, limp at the surface. They watched the line straighten out and begin to move-- not good. Soon they were circling, doing their best to photograph the line on the whale as it was described above. LaBreque and I were doing what we could to shoot video from a small boat on a choppy sea. The whale, #1424, an adult male, appears to have gotten himself into trouble somewhere north of here. The line appeared to be the type commonly associated with the fixed-gear fisheries of New England and Maritime Canada. Experts at the Center for Coastal Studies reviewed our photographs of the whale and deemed the ensnarement not to be life threatening. We are all on alert, hoping to re-sight this animal, which hasn't been seen since the initial contact on 02/12.

A week later, I was sitting at the desk, working to the sounds of the VHF-radio in order to bolster my sense of denial at having become just another pencil-pushing geek, when I heard a familiar voice crackling over the airwaves. It occurred to me to grab the digital recorder to tape whatever was about to transpire. Monica was hailing a casino/cruise ship and the ship's Captain was responding. This is the remainder of the conversation as it was recorded, verbatim (you have to imagine static between transmissions and airplane cockpit noise in the background of Monica's transmissions):

"...located at 30 degrees 24 point 9 minutes. 81 degrees 21 point 1 minutes. Over."

"That's a roger. I was heading into the channel here. We're going in. If we stay on the course that we're on, will we be out of the whales' way?"

"Suncruise Casino, if you alter to port you will clear the whales. Your current course will take you right to the whales. If you can alter to port, that would be excellent. Over."

"That's a roger. We'll alter to port. We'll enter the buoy system at (buoys) 3 and 4. We'll alter course right now."

"OK, roger that. We're going to stay and circle on them and I will let you know when you're clear. Over."

"That's a roger. Thank you very much. Have a good day."

424 Alpha Fox circled, Erin and Candi were working to photograph the whales and Monica handled the radio. Monica had decided to relay this info on channel 16, as there was much boat activity in the area. During this event, they noticed a USCG vessel clearing the jetties and heading NE (towards the whales). It altered its' course, presumably to give a wide berth to the whales as the CG crew monitored the transmissions being broadcast.

"Suncruise Casino, go ahead."

"Just wanted to let you know you're all clear of the whales. Thank you very much for your cooperation."

"Roger that and thank you for letting us know. Suncruise clear."

What had just happened: Zani, LaBrecque and Emmons, (aka, the Flygrrrls) were inbound in aircraft 424 Alpha Fox (appropriate moniker), flying a westerly transect, north of the entrance to the St Johns River (port of Jacksonville). They sighted a mother and calf about one nautical mile (NM) north of the entrance channel. As they broke track to work the pair, they also saw a ship approaching the channel from the NE. It was heading directly for the mother and calf, approximately 1 NM away. Monica, a licensed sea captain, directed them offshore of the mother and calf. The ship cleared them by over a quarter mile. They entered the channel one set of buoys seaward of where they had intended to enter. The CG vessel appears to have overheard this exchange and made a course alteration, also steering well clear of the whales.

An event such as this brings it all home. Some consolation for the team after being here 84 days, flying 58 surveys, spending 300 hours aloft, plodding back and forth across 18,000 miles of transect lines-- all to document 93 right whale sightings. That's 93 events that spark the pager system, alert harbor pilots, trigger Coast Guard Broadcast to Mariners and NAVTEX transmissions. That's a good thing. In the process we're getting data on other species. We've seen over 4500 bottlenose dolphins, 9 humpbacks, ~2000 loggerhead turtles and marked locations for over 320 large merchant and military vessels. Some day, far in the future, all this information may provide an interesting snapshot of what the head of the Georgia Bight was like at the outset of the 21st century.

C. Slay / NEAq

Fernandina Beach, FL 01/08/02

Early Warning System (EWS) Survey Team

The year of 01: what a year. As we head into 2002, the right whale calving season is starting to show signs of life. We blew into town the last day of November and began our daily aerial surveys on 12/01. It was near sweltering in the cockpit of the Oscar Deuce (Cessna O2A) we use for monitoring the spread of water lying like a welcome mat before the doorstep of the three shipping channels centered in the calving ground. Cessna built the O2A for low-altitude forward reconnaissance during the Viet Nam "conflict". These no-frills aircraft are designed to be tough and maneuverable, exceptionally stable at low airspeeds, allowing for visual surveillance and photography of the terrain below. In their original incarnation, there was a bank of radios behind the aft seats that were used to transmit information as it was acquired. Canisters hung under each wing for launching white phosphorous rockets used to mark targets. In a jam, these rounds could be used to suppress groundfire or provide relief for troops pinned down. There's not much upholstery and plenty of bare metal displaying stencil-lettered labels and messages. The O2's often came under fire and most O2 pilots had their fuselage ventilated by unseen forces beneath the jungle canopy (126 O2's were lost in Viet Nam; our aircraft was hit 24 times). When it was necessary to ditch, pilots tried to get to water. All personnel were recovered safely from the 72 O2's put down in water during the war. The door on one side, and the window on the other, can be jettisoned, preventing entrapment. (Usually doors and windows jam when the airframe of a crash-landed plane is torqued on touchdown.) The retractable landing gear also helps, making it easier to keep the plane right side up during deceleration across the water. But enough of all that. We'll be staying dry. Suffice to say it was unusually hot in the unairconditioned Cessna in early December.

In fact, when we arrived in Fernandina Beach the water temperature was 21degrees (70 F). The mean for that time is approximately 17. Mola molas and loggerheads were in abundance but few right whales were seen. Tom and Sally Murphy (SCF&W) relayed sightings from the coast of South Carolina early in December. We had occasional sightings beginning on 12/02, our second flight. But no calves were sighted until 12/19, when the EWS survey located the first mother/calf pair of the season, 5 miles off of Amelia Island, FL. Sightings have increased as the water temp has dipped below 15 (59F) but we're still not setting the world on fire. In 37 days we've flown 25 surveys and documented 16 right whale sightings, 4 of which were mom/calf pairs. These sightings represent about 10 individual right whales plus two mom/calf pairs. Based on a description of a whale given by Emily Argo, of the Offshore Survey Team (OSS), it appears they've documented an additional pair, bringing the total to 3 m/c pairs.

Sixteen sightings by January 7-- that's not as good as the 63 sightings we'd scored by 01/07 last season. But, it's a lot better than 11, the combined total from the entire 1999 and 2000 seasons.

One of the interesting things we're already experiencing is an unprecedented rate of recidivism. Not only did Monica, Erin, Candi and Pete return to the calving ground (more on them later), we've seen a surprising number of last year's cows return with their yearlings. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising. In a robust population it might be expected. But it's not something we normally witness. From our sightings and the sighting reported from South Carolina, it appears that 5 (!) of last year's cows have returned to the calving ground with yearlings. And these yearlings are huge. It's astonishing how much these whales grow in a year. It would probably take an old Russian whaler to give a reasonable estimate of a yearling's weight on "the hoof", but these animals are about 10 meters and FAT. They must be 15,000 kilograms or more (16 tons)? Most of the newborn calves I've seen at necropsies would go 5 meters and maybe 800 kilos (<1 ton). Wow. It makes you appreciate the mothers of the world, especially these moms.

As for this year's mothers, those of you with whom we spoke after our first sighting on 12/02 may remember the team mentioning how big that animal was. We saw her again on 12/05 and then again on 01/04-- but with a calf. All these sightings were off of Cumberland Island, GA. No doubt she gave birth nearby. I wear this statement out and I'll say it again: this area, between Savannah and St. Augustine, has to be carefully protected, managed if you prefer, if this species is to survive.

Now about that recidivism rate. We're extremely fortunate to have the infamous Flygrrls back on the scene. Monica Zani, Candice Emmons and Erin LaBrecque have all returned for their third season in the right whale calving ground. Pete Duley, with the OSS team last year, is lending us his legendary eyes and Alison Stimpert joins us fresh from a long research season on the NOAA R/V Delaware. The Delaware was engaged in numerous right whale studies in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy last year. Alison has worked with marine mammals for the past few years in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Everybody who's worked with her highly recommended her and they weren't lying. Pete, too, was on the Delaware for the last two years and has worked with sea birds and marine mammals in far too many places to list, but I'll mention 3 summers in Antarctica, years in the Bay of Fundy, at least one season in Alaska and quite a few seasons in the calving ground. He's a good man to have on any field project of this nature; they don't get much better. Erin finished a 5-month NOAA marine mammal research cruise in the Pacific, took a few days to catch her breath, and jumped into our survey plane, ready to go. She's been on many such cruises for NOAA, in the Atlantic and the Gulf, and she remains in high demand. Candi has studied orcas for several years as a key member of Ken Balcomb's research team in Washington. She has also studied balaenopterids and odontocetes in the Bahamas. We're lucky the orca work tapers off in the winter, allowing her to bring her considerable skills to north Florida. Monica Zani is the crew chief for this fine assemblage of talent and experience. She hired on with the New England Aquarium at 17 years of age. (I'm not allowed to say how many years ago that was but I can say, with the exception of myself and Mr. Duley, none of the team is within arm's reach of 30. I'm amazed at the experience of such a young group.) Responsibility comes naturally to Monica. She's held her 100-ton captain's license for several years, and when she's not with us she runs the Aquarium's large research and whale watching vessels. Like all good captains, she possesses an incisive intelligence and is utterly unflappable.

While I'm going on about people, I should mention Lisa Conger, Beth Pike and the rest of the crew at the New England Aquarium. Lisa automated us with a data logging system for our aircraft this year. Beth and company's photo-ID capabilities allow us to carry the whale news to you. Hopefully, there'll be much more to come.

Chris Slay
New England Aquarium, Right Whale Calving Ground 2002

Copyright 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996 Wheelock College and others. Single copies of photos permitted for educational use. All other rights reserved J. Michael Williamson, WhaleNet Principal Investigator.

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