Southeast Right Whale Research Log


January 30, 1998
aboard Jupiter

A call from the EWS survey plane: there's a pair of whales lolling next to the Saint Marys channel, and a navy submarine is on its way in. So we've got to move: watch for incoming vessels and dart those whales. We fuel the boat and head out.

Making our way through the channel, we see the sub's conning tower approaching just off the jetties. We shut down and watch the top of this hi-tech tube, as black as any right whale, silently pass us by. The sub, which may carry nuclear warheads, doesn't emit any sounds or exhaust. It's a machine built for self-sufficiency and stealth; one of the officers on the navy boat escorting this vessel asks us not to take any pictures. We ride out of the channel over its very large wake.

Chris eyes the whales, two ink spots just below the horizon--around two in the afternoon. We hope to repeat the same process as last time: shut down a hundred yards from the mother-calf pair, take some behavioral observations with the hydrophone and video camera, and then dart the whales. But things rarely work as planned; the mother has other ideas.

I let out the plastic-coated hydrophone, suspending it about fifteen feet below the surface. The whales aren't emitting any discernible sounds. It's surprising, but right whale mother-calf pairs seem to remain quiet for much of their stay in the calving ground. Perhaps they stay so close together there's no need for vocalization. Certainly the mothers are devoted to their calves. In fact, whalers exploited this dedication: a crew would usually harpoon a calf first, knowing that a cow will not desert her young. Thus both the calf and its frantic mother could be killed.

Even though whalers no longer pose a threat here, these whales have not chosen a good place to laze about in. The sub we saw heading in through the channel probably came within two-hundred yards of these whales. And it's just one of the many large vessels using this fifty-foot trough to get inshore.

Though the hydrophone isn't picking anything up, the calf is feeling frisky. Flukes flash in the air, as it rides high on the mother's back. The calf is a pretty large newborn, probably about a month old. But at about eighteen feet, it's not too large to piggyback on its mother, perhaps trying to slow her down and nurse for a while. Entranced, we watch this interaction for about half an hour before we realize we've got a job to do.

As they settle down, we move in to dart the pair. The cow shies away our boat approaches. But the calf doesn't seem too concerned, swimming just under Jupiter to check us out. Mom, however will have none of that. She keeps leading the calf away from us, always with her broad black back to the boat.

Perhaps it's the outboard that's bothering her. With two strong people onboard--Mike Frick and Charlie Stinchcomb--we decide to paddle after the whales, in the hope that we can sneak up on the pair. We may be as quiet as a sub, but with two small paddles we're not quite fast enough to be stealthy.

"I'm sure she's onto us," Chris says. "Mom just wants nothing to do with us."

The good news is that by now the pair is out of the channel, heading to the northeast. Chris draws a wide circle around them, like a cowboy herding his animals away from danger. A steady approach that parallels the whales' course is most effective. But it's not an easy task to judge their heading. Even if we don't get any skin, at least we've directed them away from shipping traffic.

The calf surfaces for a quick breath, and Chris is right on it. He darts the calf just above the flukes. It slaps its flukes on the water in protest, and both whales submerge.

As Chris grabs another arrow, we search the water for fluke prints. When whales swim underwater, the currents created by their Volkswagen-size flukes create ripples at the surface that we can use to help follow their course. "Come hard to port," Chris calls. The mother and calf accelerate, deciding we're not much fun to play with.

He pulls back on his bow and takes a long shot. But his dart sails over the mother's back and skips across the water. It's Chris's first miss of the year.

On the next attempt, after another circle to port around the pair, the dart hits the water below the tail stock and skips over the whale. It's not Chris's day, and the mother is not providing much of a target, barely lifting her snout above water when she surfaces, then submerging after just one breath.

"Okay, come right around," Chris says to Mike, who's at the wheel. "Hold your course and speed."

His dart hits the water just below the cow's right flank and skips over her back. Chris is frustrated. "I'm shooting wild. Let's leave them be."

The whales are now out of the channel, and hopefully out of harm's way . . . for now. As we head in, Mike notices a rainbow arching around the sun, which is hovering over the paper mill on the horizon. We shut the engine and watch the sun sink into the industrial haze, telling tales about the one that got away.

February 1, 1998
Fernandina Beach, FL

Back at our office, reviewing slides from previous outings, Chris and I make a satisfying discovery. The photos of yesterday's elusive mom match a cow we saw on January 12. On that day, we darted the mother but couldn't get her calf. We now have a complete set.

Go to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 24 April 1998

Go back to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 22 Jan. 1998