Southeast Right Whale Research Log
10 January 1998
Out on the water at last--in transit to a right whale sighting called in at 1020 hrs by the Early Warning System (EWS) survey plane. Itıs a beautiful day compared to our first attempt to get offshore. After that run a few days ago, I was as sore as if I'd been bull riding all afternoon, and the conditions at sea were too rough to run fifteen miles in Jupiter, our eighteen-foot rubber boat. The toughest part was the passage through the jetties of the Saint Mary's Channel.
The channel is fifty-feet deep and about twenty miles long, and it has to be dredged yearly to clear the way for nuclear submarines that come and go from their base upriver. These alterations make for some wild currents in the channel. With four-foot breaking waves, it can be a wild ride. The pontoons act like springboards, tossing us high into the air. But today the channel is smooth and the Jupiter is in tow, so we can maneuver around the whales once we find them.
Film maker Rick Rosenthal has chartered the Wahoo, a thirty-foot fishing vessel, to film right whales for a documentary heıs making for the BBC. He's hoping to get some footage of a mother and calf pair and of Chris darting a whale. Also onboard is sound man Dave Ruddick, who's assisting Rick, and EWS survey-team members Megan McOsker and Stephanie Martin.
But this time, the larger boat, the recent sighting, and the light breeze make us optimistic about finding whales. It's exciting work, bouncing around offshore in search of the worldıs most endangered large whale. Once we approach the coordinates called in by the survey plane, the captain, Allen Mills, spots them off the bow. Megan, Chris, and I board Jupiter, wired for sound so Dave can tape us for their film.
The right whale was known to whalers as the black whale, and these four are the color of freshly paved blacktop. Theyıre in an unusual alignment--swimming side by side in echelon off our bow. We photograph each of them, trying to keep track of their individual characteristics. One whale, perhaps in response to the others around it, begins moaning at the surface, and then flashes its white belly to the sky. They begin rolling and rubbing their bus-size bodies together. A gathering of whales exhibiting this behavior is known as a SAG, or surface-active group. From the bow of the Wahoo, Stephanie photographs the rambunctious whales' behavior. Aboard Jupiter, we follow a peripheral animal, photographing it as it surfaces.
Fieldwork is inevitably a matter of patience: First we identify the whales visually, take confirming photographs, and then Chris can set up his bow and arrow. He has spent years fine-tuning his archery equipment for biopsy darting whales, and now he has to wait for the right moment--and distance--to dart these sixty-ton beasts.
The ideal darting distance is about thirty to sixty feet, close enough to hit the animal but far enough to minimize disturbance--both for their sake and ours. Though rare, there have been reports of right whales attacking their pursuers. In the nineteenth century, one whale came up with such force beneath a whaleboat that her snout broke a hole in the bottom, tossing the whalers into the ocean. And there have been reports of whalers lost at sea after their boat was struck by a furious, wounded whale. Of course, those whalers were armed with harpoons and the intent to kill. There are no records of researchers, equipped with bows and small arrows, being attacked by right whales. Still, it never hurts to be cautious, especially in a boat less than half the size of our target.
When the whale surfaces, it's just off the bow--the head alone is probably the size of our boat. With a peaky crest of callosity and white scars on its head, it's the easiest whale in the group to identify. Chris pulls back on his bow and steadies the arrow, waiting on the whale's blubbery flank to break the surface. These whales are like fleeting icebergs. Only the tips of their bodies appear above the sea before they dive. With Megan at the wheel, we ease up to the animal before it disappears. The whale doesnıt react at all to the quiet thud of the biopsy dart as it hits the gleaming black skin. We retrieve a genetic sample and a piece of blubber from the arrow floating at the surface. After quickly processing this sample, Chris readies a dart just before another animal from the group surfaces across our bow. The shutter of my camera cranks into gear, then thwack, another sample is taken.
As we're working this up--storing the tissues and recording the collection data--a call crackles in on our radio. Itıs a grim report: a dead right whale has been seen by the Florida DEP survey team about thirty-five miles off the coast of Jekyll Island, Georgia. Female right whales invest a lot of time and energy into rearing just one calf, and the loss of a single individual can be a tragedy to such a small population. After a two-hour commute, and some much-welcomed help from the sharp eyes in the EWS survey plane, we locate the calf. It still has fetal folds from being cramped up in the motherıs womb. The death appears to be natural--perhaps itıs from a first-time mother who had trouble birthing. A Coast Guard vessel arrives to tow it in, so a careful examination--or necropsy--can be done onshore tomorrow.
Go to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 12 Jan. 1998