Right Whale

New England Aquarium

Surveys For Right Whales

Radio Tracking 1998-1999

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Radio Tracking Reports
1998-1999 Right Whale Research


Tracking And Side-tracking From Fernandina, 01/26/99

As I mentioned in my last EWS update, we've been trying to tag a female right whale in the calving ground. Tracking day and night, we want to monitor her and her calf's behavior. Usually we're allowed but a glimpse into their world from an airplane performing vertiginous maneuvers at 700 feet while researchers hurriedly scribble notes-- "she's up, she's down, calf's rolling on mom's back, mom's upside down with the calf between her flippers, calf's nursing, they appear to be sleeping.....". A privileged moment but too fleeting to give us an understanding of fine-scale movements or behaviors and how such things might relate to right whales' vulnerability to large vessels and other potential threats.

The need to better address these threats seems particularly urgent in a year when we've only identified two mother/calf pairs from all sources of photo-ID data. It doesn't take much of a mortality rate to offset that level of recruitment. And it doesn't make it very easy to find a subject for the study we planned. Poseidon must have given us a nod, allowed for some luck this past Wednesday, 01/20/99, when we managed to successfully tag one the two moms' of 1999.

Lisa Conger and her offshore aerial survey team found the pair during a routine survey of the waters east of the EWS area. (Our EWS surveys extend offshore about 20 NM and the GA-DNR / FL-DEP offshore team surveys from 20 NM out to 40 NM, more or less.) They graciously sent word by radio at 1230 hours. Amy Knowlton and I headed for the boat ramp, Zodiac in tow. The whales were approximately 30 NM offshore of our field station on Amelia Island, FL but it was a warm, lazy afternoon with a smooth sea and the commute in our 18' inflatable didn't seem much like work. (Unlike the return trip in dense fog and lumpy seas.)

We arrived where the whales were reported and Amy noticed the circling plane of the offshore survey crew. They'd returned to the area to relocate the pair. We were lucky to have our friends taking such good care of us. As the plane disappeared into the pale blue to continue their survey, we turned our attention to the dark protuberance 300 meters off our bow. The mother was laying still at the surface appearing to doze while the calf poked around her as if trying to reckon her mass; probably just bored and looking for some attention. Amy steered the silently idling boat to the pair and we implanted the small transmitter at 1503 hours. At 1510, mom lolled at the surface, apparently half asleep, while the calf nursed. Our tracking crew on the R/V Jane Yarn had been running line-transects offshore and, as luck would have it, they were only an hour away when we radioed from the Zodiac.

Onboard the Jane were our New England Aquarium colleagues Stepahnie Martin and Joe Roman, and NMFS collaborators Steve Swartz, co-P.I. on this project, and Joe Contillo. Amy and I boarded the boat like a couple of pirates and were conscripted. Conspicuously absent were Tony Martinez and Jim Tobias. Those guys spent nearly two weeks on the boat with Joe and Steph working out the bugs in the system. Wrestling several hundred feet of RG-8 coax, receivers, data loggers, auto-direction-finding antenna arrays, various plugs, connectors and duct tape-- they managed to create a fine whale tracking apparatus. I'm convinced this was only possible through Tony's gifted use of the proper string of cuss words, applied judiciously, to whatever highly sensitive electronics needed it, as he labored over said equipment with a jeweler's loop and a ball peen hammer. We'd have toasted their hard work many times had we the libations onboard.

For the next two days the Jane tracked the pair. Hours would pass when the boat wasn't put into gear, so slow were the whales to move. At other times, they made steady headway and the Jane idled along behind. After 43 hours of tracking, the pair had gone about 35 NM north. Shortly after noon on 01/22, the Jane turned toward the shelter of Fernandina as a heavy front approached.

Philip Hamilton and Marilyn Marx were able to match photographs of the tagged mom to right whale #1612. A female who's not been observed in our primary summer research area, the Bay of Fundy. She probably belongs to a distinct genetic lineage within this population, "matriline c". Animals of this lineage seem to spend most of their time offshore of the coastal areas haunted by most right whales.

Yesterday, 01/25/99, after the wind subsided I had the good fortune of locating #1612 (she needs a name) using aircraft-mounted tracking gear. As soon as we'd climbed to 3000' feet and I tuned the receiver-- beep, beep, beep. Better to be lucky than good, as Scott Kraus is given to say. We found her about 10 NM offshore of our field station, on nearly the same latitude we'd found her last week, basking in the sun, her calf milling around as if waiting on her to wake up. Within an hour the Jane Yarn was on the scene and tracking. As of this morning at 0700 hours, they haven't moved much. We're hoping for a few good days which will allow us to continue recording 24 hour movement and surface/dive data. The project has been well taken care of by the crew of the Jane Yarn and the good folks at the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary (see their web site). Things on the boat are running smoothly and if our luck holds I may have more to report later in the week.

Chris Slay
Fernandina Beach

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