Southeast Right Whale Research Log

January 12, 1998
Aboard the Amelia Angler II

"We've got some whales!" calls Megan from her perch in the tuna tower, an aluminum platform about twenty feet above the water. The high vantage of the tower helps us spot whales today, even before our plane has surveyed the area, about ten miles offshore, just south of the submarine channel. In the nineteenth century, whalers would ride the masthead on a few small planks of wood high above the sea. Aboard the Angler, another vessel chartered by film maker Rick Rosenthal, we can photograph these whales quite comfortably from the bridge, where Captain Mills steers the boat.

But even from the tower, right whales can be difficult to spot, especially in choppy seas. It's hard to believe we can lose a fifty-ton animal out here, but sometimes a whale manages to elude us, even when we've just seen it nearby. We're never sure just where they'll surface again. That's why survey planes and the cooperation of ship operators are so important in the calving ground this time of year.

First, we encounter three animals swiftly heading south, with no intention of hanging around for us. Though we manage to get a few photos, it's clear these whales will be difficult to dart. As we shut down, we hear the howl of a loon in the distance. Then we see a blow two miles to the southwest.

Cow/Calf Pair

It's a mother-calf pair, and even these whales are skittish around the Jupiter. The larger Amelia Angler seems to have less effect on the whales' behavior this afternoon, so we use it as a darting platform. As Captain Mills eases up to the whales, Chris plants his feet firmly on the bow, poised at the edge of the rail. His archer's background serves him well. After flying more than sixty feet, the arrow glances off the mother's back, just before she dives. We retrieve a skin sample from the dart.

Chris is on a roll today, and the Angler's quiet motor allows us to get a skin and blubber sample from the calf, even though the pair continues to avoid us. These samples will serve as a permanent record for this season's first biopsied mother-and-calf.

On our way back to Amelia Island after a full day on the water with the whales, we are affronted by the stark, Armageddon-like sight of sulfuric smoke billowing across the lights of a vast paper mill. A pair of red lights, flashing like demon eyes, tower over the plant. There are two paper mills on this side of the island. It's just possible that once Michael Moore and his colleagues analyze the samples we got today, they might be able to determine if any of the dioxins released by these mills or other plants along the coast are affecting the whales offshore.

13 January 1998
Aboard the Jupiter

The ride through the channel is woolly and wild today. We're back aboard our own small research vessel--the cameras and spotlights have turned to the survey planes in the sky--and the waves, edged with whitecaps, are at least as tall as we are. For fifteen minutes or so, we ride a roller coaster without any rails.

But once we're out of that stretch between the jetties, the sea is glassy, almost dreamlike in the way it rolls. We're looking for a mother and calf reported by the EWS surveys. After an hour of searching, we're unable to locate them. On intuition, we head east to an area fourteen miles off the southern tip of Amelia Island. Sure enough, a fluke marks the location of a mother-calf pair that has gone unnoticed by the EWS. As we approach, we realize it's the same two we darted yesterday afternoon. Today they seem at ease. Often we find that the whales' temperment reflects the sea state. On calm days, whales log at the surface, and their blows can be heard for miles. Though it's also possible we're projecting our own enjoyment of this fine day onto the whales. Either way, the pair is nonchalant about our presence.

With the boat shut down, we put the hydrophone in the water and listen to a dozen chatterbox dolphins, as they congregate about the mother and calf. A tern hovers over the calf for a few minutes, apparently looking for a place to rest on its back. This is fieldwork at its best. The pair hardly seem to notice us at all, and for a while, it appears that the calf is nursing. It nestles up against her flipper, then swims back closer to her flukes. The mammary glands are located to the rear of the cow (as with other large mammals, female whales are called cows), and sometimes we see the tail stock arched above the water, perhaps providing easy access for the calf.

After photographing the pair and recording behavior on video for nearly an hour, we bring up the hydrophone and move in to get a sample. Though we already have skin samples from both of them, we never did get blubber from the cow. So all Chris needs to do is dart the mom, and we can leave these two alone. (The dolphins, however, show no signs of departing. Here in the Southeast, it's quite common to see bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside a right whale, their sleek gray dorsal fins surfacing near the flat dark backs of the whales.)

Ten feet from the bow, the mother lifts her head above the surface. The callosity pattern on her snout is the color of campfire ash, and we can see her eye beneath the water. Chris maintains the tension on his compound bow; he doesn't want to dart at such close range. The whale submerges just a few feet from the front of the boat.

She circles us and surfaces off the stern. From the bow, Chris yells, "Get down!" We hit the decks. The arrow flies overhead and hits the mother's left flank forty feet away. She displays no immediate reaction to the sample.

Though we're quite pleased with the afternoon's success, the dolphins and the whales take no notice--they continue their slow journey to the south as we process the sample. Only a passing gannet, a thick-necked seabird with white belly and dark wings, checks us out before continuing on its way. With the sun approaching the horizon, it's time for us to journey home.

Go to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 22 Jan. 1998

Go back to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 10 Jan. 1998


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