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Right Whale

New England Aquarium

EARLY WARNING SYSTEM
Surveys For Right Whales

EWS Reports 1998-1999



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1998-1999 Right Whale Research / Early Warning System Reports

FROM: NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM - RIGHT WHALE RESEARCH


EWS Update #11 03/17/99 - 03/31/99

The last 15 days of our project, like most of the season, went by without much excitement. The last two days of the month were "blown out", as was 03/21 and 03/24. The eleven days flown were nice enough, yielding plenty of turtle and dolphin data. On 03/20, we enumerated over 200 loggerheads and over 4000 cownose rays (rhinoptera bonasus). We scored two sightings of humpbacks during the last two weeks of surveys but it looks like all the right whales had left the area by early March; what right whales there were. This year was by far the slowest season yet for the EWS. We can only claim 5 right whale sightings if we don't count the 3 sightings (01/22, 01/25, 01/26) of #1612 and her calf after she was tagged. And I can't bring myself to include them in the official count given that we located her using radio-tracking gear or by using the 20 meter tracking vessel as a cue. We did circle #2520 and her calf on 02/07/99, 15 NM south of our area, after we'd been tipped-off to her whereabouts by the CSA survey crew... so I guess it's only 5 sightings for the EWS. (Remember, the Offshore Team had seven, which underscores the importance of support for that effort.)

Our sightings were:

12/31/98 #2215, age 7,
- #1703, age 12,
01/09/99 #1612 w/ calf
01/12/99 #1204 w/ calf
01/13/99 #1911, age 10,
- #1711, age 12,
- #1125, adult,
01/16/99 #1204 w/ calf

We sighted humpbacks on each of the following days:

01/26/99
03/02/99
03/18/99
03/23/99

As Lisa Conger mentioned in her last update, all of the cows this year are from a segment of the population which is not seen during our work in near-shore habitats up north (Cape Cod, Bay of Fundy). This offshore subset of the population appears to be genetically segregated from the rest of the population according to the preliminary findings of Dr. Brad White & Co.. Interestingly enough, 4 of the 5 cows giving birth last winter also belonged to this offshore subset of the population. Where have all the old familiar right whale cows gone? The 3 whales sighted on 01/13/99 were all "inshore" females of reproductive age. Maybe one of them slipped out of the calving ground with a calf. If so, we should see her in the Bay of Fundy this summer. The only cow/calf pair to be sighted up north so far is #1204. She was photo'd off Long Island, NY, on 03/10/99, by a NMFS survey crew.

So the whales have scattered and so have the folks that follow them. The annual diaspora of calving ground researchers is almost complete. The steadfast leaders of our flying team, Alicia Windham-Reid and Mike Frick have returned home to loved ones-- and manatee and sea turtles. Rebecca Clark will be working a sea turtle nesting beach on the coast of Georgia this summer. Sean Beevor is somewhere in the Appalachians, heading back to Toronto, where he and his brother will be helping to build a home for disadvantaged youth. Jesse Coltrane, after several field seasons on turtle nesting beaches and in the Amazon chasing monkeys, is heading to Alaska. Mr. Jamie King (a.k.a., the King), champion surf kayaker and expedition leader, was also headed northwest, last I heard. Tim O'Toole is making his way to southern California, where graduate school, among other things, awaits. And Pete Duley, veteran of the Antarctic, will be making a trip to that continent for bird research during the height of the austral winter (brrr). These dedicated people have spent hundreds of ours scanning the surface of the ocean for whales when there no whales to be found. But their concentration and determination never wavered. And they're a hell of good bunch to hang-out with at the end of a long day.

Many thanks to them and all the other survey crews flying over the calving ground this winter, and especially to the folks at the Navy's FACSFAC facility, who kept the information flowing. May we all more whales to talk about next year.

Best Regards,
Chris Slay
New England Aquarium

EWS Update #10 03/01/99 - 03/16/99

How does the saying go....in like a lion, out like a lamb? March came in with a lions roar. Since our last update, we've had many days of high winds. On most of the days we did fly, sighting conditions were marginal. Sea states of 4 and 5 have been the norm, cutting flying time substantially. There are no right whales to report for this period.

Despite our limited time in the air, we have had some interesting sightings. On March 2nd, we sighted a humpback on our southern most line. It was seen 2 miles offshore, south of Jacksonville Beach. On one of the few calm sea state days, we counted 322 schools of fish. The sea birds were going wild! We also spotted one large group of over 100 bottlenose dolphins, all swimming in pairs; very symmetrical. The surf temperatures are slowly rising; Jacksonville now reports 16.7 degree C.

The EWS crew would like to bid Lisa Conger and the offshore team farewell, as they have finished their survey season. We're going to miss you!

Alicia Windham-Reid
New England Aquarium
EWS Aerial Surveys

EWS Report #9 - 02/12/99 thru 02/28/99

With the onset of an early spring, it has become increasingly likely that we've seen the last of this year's calving right whales down here in Florida. Over the past eighteen days the weather has been surprisingly cooperative, allowing us to fly fifteen days. Unfortunately, we haven't seen any whales. Leatherbacks turtles have begun to move to more northerly waters following flotillas of cannonball jellyfish. Massive schools of cownose rays have moved in from the south to take their place. We're also seeing large manta rays and equally impressive spotted eagle rays. Kemp's Ridley turtles are occassionally seen near the coast while loggerheads are seen throughout the local marine ecosystem. There seem to be no shortage of interesting critters out there but it sure would be nice to see one more right whale. We'll keep our eyes open and fingers crossed.

Mike Frick
EWS Aerial Surveys

EWS Report #8 - 01/29/99 thru 02/11/99

The two weeks covered by this update would, in any other winter, include right whale sightings information. But this year, early February reads like mid-March. Nearshore water temps are pushing 20 degrees Celsius and climbing. The gannets are leaving; basking sharks never showed; ubiquitous pods of bottlenose dolphins prowl like boisterous streetgangs; spanish mackerel shred schools of bait fish; an armada of leatherbacks passed through, headed north; loggerheads are scattered like shelled corn across a dark blue bedspread; cownose rays lay like close-fitted tiles across acres of ocean; molas, lying on their side, watch us fly by. It doesn't feel like midwinter. And the only whales seen lately-- our tagged mom, headed home (see tracking update), and mother/calf number three (see Lisa Conger's update). Nothing more from the EWS surveys.

Chris Slay
Fernandina

EWS Report #7 - 01/15/99 thru 01/28/99

The right whale situation down here in Florida hasn't changed much since the last EWS update. Although nine of the fifteen days this period afforded decent survey conditions, we've had only one routine right whale sighting, 01/18/99, of a mother/calf pair offshore off Brunswick, Georgia.

EWS aerial surveys have sighted the R/V Jane Yarn, and subsequently the mother/calf pair being radio-tracked, on two occassions, 01/22 and 01/26. On 01/25, we located the pair by air, using tracking gear. In the event that the radio-tracking team has to abandon its mission due to unfavorable weather conditions, the EWS aircraft is outfitted with trackng gear to help relocate the pair. Our last visual contact of the radio-tracking study was on 01/26, a mile north of the very busy shipping channel at Mayport, Florida (Jacksonville).

More good news comes from our visiting project veteran Amy Knowlton. Amy studied the photos and video taken this season and determined that there are two mother/calf pairs down here this year. Previous analysis showed only one mother/calf pair. We'll keep surveying with rose-colored glasses. Who knows, we may find more mother/calf pairs this season.

One final note, on 01/26/99 we were rewarded for our diligent surveying with a humpback whale sighting. The individual was repeatedly breaching about 15 NM offshore of Cumberland Island, Georgia. Team member Sean Beevor best described this sighting, "It was like something kept biting the whale on the butt and all the poor whale could do was jump to get away from it."

Mike Frick
EWS Survey Team
Fernandina Beach, Florida

EWS Report #6 - 01/05/99 thru 01/14/99

This update covers the past ten days rather than the usual seven. We're running a little behind as we gear up for a radio-tracking project designed to help us better understand a day (or more) in the life of a right whale cow and calf. Attaching a thumb sized radio transmitter to a mom will allow us to track her for several days, maybe weeks, during her stay in the calving ground. We'd like to know more about the behavior of these animals, especially what traits make them so vulnerable to ships. For example, do calves tend to nurse more at certain times than others? Do mothers sleep at the surface during the day or at night? How fast do they swim and do they move more during day or night? Are there behavioral traits associated with water depth or other oceanographic features which increase the vulnerability of these animals to ship strike? Exactly what percentage of time do they spend at the surface, visible to aerial survey teams? This information will help policy makers develop management strategies to better protect the whales and their habitats.

But there's a hang. No whales. Actually, there is at least one mother/calf pair in the area and three or four other individuals that may include a mother-to-be. But that's about it. Unfortunately it's not too difficult to recount the season to date. There have only been 11 confirmed sightings by aerial survey teams since the first of December. Four of these were sightings of what's probably the same mother and calf. The Offshore Survey (OSS) sighted them off Savannah on New Year's eve and a week later (01/07) they found them a few miles off the south end of Amelia Island. The EWS picked her up on 01/09 off Little Cumberland Island and three days later (01/12) off Brunswick. We had good sea states (< beaufort 3) 01/06, 07, 08, 09, 12, 13, 14. That's 7 nice days out of 10, in early January, normally the peak of the season. Planes were offshore, inshore, up the coast, down the coast and all we got was a mother/calf pair and three other whales (hopefully expecting). There were only 8 sightings from all surveys-- EWS, OSS, FLDEP, GADNR, CSA-- Savannah to Cocoa Beach and 40 miles offshore. During the past 5 years the EWS effort alone has averaged 15 sightings during this 10 day period. This year we've had 4.

Word from the west coast is that the gray whales moved out of Alaska late this year. Hopefully that's what's happening here and everything's a little late because of the slow drop in water temps this season. Perhaps it's been a bad couple of years for foraging right whales--reproductive fitness has been compromised? Could be a lot of things.
For now, we'll assume they're late. Maybe next week?

EWS Report #5 - 12/29/98 thru 1/4/98

After being grounded due to inclement weather most of the last week in December, the EWS team was finally able to fly a full survey on the 31st. Our patience was rewarded with a sighting of two adults at the southern most point of our survey area, approximately 5 miles off Jacksonville Beach. The pair was sighted at 1453 hours local time, at N30 14.6 / W081 17.3. One animal appeared to be a full grown adult while the other was slightly smaller and may have been a juvenile. There was considerable surface activity and body contact. The smaller animal breached several times, was lobtailing and generally raising hell. A great first sighting and well worth the wait. The wind and seas increased in the days that followed, giving us less than favorable survey conditions. Although we flew over moderate seas on Jan. 1st, conditions changed for the 2nd thru the 4th with wind speeds commonly 15+ knots. Overall this week, we saw 444 bottlenose dolphins, 136 loggerhead turtles, 7 leatherback turtles, 2 kemp ridleys, approx. 30 cownose rays and 15 mola mola.
Still waiting for the moms....

Team Right Whale
Chris, Alicia, Mike, Reb, Jesse, Sean

EWS Report #4 - 12/22/98 thru 12/28/98

The new year is just around the corner and to date we still haven't seen any right whales. Perhaps because of the foul weather we encountered Christmas week, most of which was spent on the ground. In fact, 12/22 was the last day that the we were able to fly a substantial amount of the EWS survey area. Even then, fog patches and time spent chasing erroneous sighting reports hampered our efforts to complete the survey. We attempted flights on 12/23 and 12/24 only to find more of the fog that would keep us grounded for the rest of the week. On the flip side, maybe Santa led the whales into our area under the cover of fog. The water temp is dropping into the range calving whales seem to prefer. For the last several days the surf temperature at Jacksonville Beach has been around 17 degrees C. Maybe the whales are waiting on us while we wait on nice survey conditions. In the few good hours of flying we did last week we saw 207 bottlenose dolphins, 39 loggerheads turtles, 7 leatherbacks turtles, 117 cow nose rays, 14 mola molas and lots (scientific enumeration) of cannonball jellyfish. There is really nothing else to report except that we hope everyone has a HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Alicia Windham-Reid

EWS Report #3 - 12/15/98 thru 12/21/98

Nothing much to report this third week although we had three nice days for flying and an additional two afternoons that were reasonable, once the fog lifted. There have been several unconfirmed reports of right whales in and around the EWS survey area from various sources. So far we've found nothing but gannets dive-bombing large schools of fish and very active pods of bottlenose dolphins when we've investigated these reports. But sometimes even large whales can be elusive. Maybe Christmas will bring our first confirmed sighting in the nearshore area. Wishing you all the best of the holiday season-- Team Right Whale, Fernandina Beach

EWS Report #2 - 12/08/98 thru 12/14/98

The second week of the surveys was even less exciting than the first. Actually, the first week gave us a chance to sharpen our eyes on many species of marine vertebrates and the sight of a hundred sharks silently moving in unison, tails sweeping back and forth, is a nice reminder of the life under the expansive plains over which we fly. But that expanse has seemed deceptively less alive during the past week because of what happens at the air/water interface when the air is moving faster than a school zone speed limit. On only two days did we complete surveys with sea states of 3 or less. Three days were flown over choppy seas and one day was a total wash. Our good days were 12/08 and 12/09 and those days gave us: 87 bottlenose dolphins, 35 loggerheads, 2 leatherbacks, a large hammerhead shark, a mola mola and over 2500 cownose rays, to mention a few of the more ubiquitous species. That's it for now.

Chris Slay

EWS Report #1 - 12/01/98 thru 12/07/98

The EWS surveys are in progress and things are going smoothly. The surf temperature at Jacksonville Beach has been sitting at 21-22C, a little warm for right whales. There have been sightings reported off of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina during the last couple of weeks. A sport fisherman reported a right whale approximately 25NM off of Jekyll Island, GA on 12/01. They're on the way but we've yet to see any big animals. Conditions for surveying have been nice on all but one day (12/02). We have seen lots of other creatures: ~1200 bottlenose dolphins, 267 loggerhead turtles, 22 leatherbacks, 20 kemp's ridleys, ~600 sharks, ~3300 cownose rays and 8 mola mola. Mike Williamson and I will be working to get the EWS/Whalenet site fine tuned during the next couple of weeks. If you have any suggestions, please let us know.
http://whale.wheelock.edu/whalenet-stuff/reports/
More later,
Chris Slay


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