Sei Whale Soup, and a few right whales

The 2019 spring right whale cruise is being conducted aboard the University of Connecticut’s research vessel Connecticut, which is a 90-foot vessel proving to be a very nimble and capable vessel for this work. We departed Woods Hole on Monday, May 6, around 6pm, arriving in an area south of Martha’s Vineyard  and even south of the New York shipping lanes by daylight Tuesday morning. The weather was good and the NEFSC aerial crew came out in the NOAA Twin Otter to survey in the same area. They relayed positions of two groups of right whales, each a group of two. We traveled to the first group and found one right whale in that area. Conditions were not good for launching the small rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RHIB, but with the help of Pete Duley’s 500mm lens, we managed identifiable images from the fly bridge of the ship. We then headed west to the second location, where we again found one right whale.


Pete Duley with his 500mm lens. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Elizabeth Josephson

The next morning, Wednesday the 8th, we were set up a few miles to the west of the aerial team’s last sighting from the 7th. Conditions were calm and we set up a boxed survey around an area where five right whales had been seen. As we worked our way east of the original sighting, we came upon several small groups of sei whales. They were all skim feeding. Obtaining sei whale biopsy samples is a secondary objective of this cruise. We decided to launch the RHIB and get some biopsy samples. As fieldwork often goes, by the time we launched, the sei whales were no longer skim feeding and the seas began to pick up.

After some effort to keep up with sub surface feeding sei whales (we don’t recommend that you try this at home!) we brought the RHIB back onboard…, just in time for Genevieve Davis to call from the fly bridge with a right whale sighting! Whaaaat?!? Again, we were able to photograph from the fly bridge.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t relaunch again in these seas. We photographed three right whales from the ship this day. By the end of the day, we were not far from where we’d started and decided to deploy a prototype hydrophone buoy that Chris Tremblay is testing in collaboration with Melissa Omand from URI. The hydrophone is set at 30 meters on a weighted cable from a float that is tracked using Iridium, SPOT GPS, and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) . We deployed the buoy and drifted most of the night not too far away. The ship was able to track the buoy easily with AIS up to six nautical miles away.


North Atlantic right whale photographed from the R/V Connecticut. Photo Credit: Amy Warren

On the morning of the 9th, we were again in calm seas and the buoy was only about four miles away. We decided to re-survey the area during the morning. With no whales sighted, we returned to pick up the buoy and continue surveying to the north where the plane reported a group of three to five whales on Tuesday. Buoy retrieval was successful and done before the seas picked up. The buoy was deployed overnight. We headed north to survey, finding another two right whales. One of them was ID’d as biopsy target, Eg#3297. Seas are too rough to launch. Interestingly, this whale was seen in Cape Cod Bay in April. One of the right whales was exactly in the shipping lanes with four ships inbound! We called the U.S. Coast Guard, Long Island sector and requested a Broadcast Notice to Mariners. They complied without question, all very good. By nightfall, we were heading into Woods Hole to run from weather and to let Chris and Genevieve troubleshoot some components of the sonobuoys. We snuck into Woods Hole around 2am, and were at the NEFSc’s Woods Hole Laboratory dock  almost all day.

Some notes about the waters surveyed on May 7th – 9th: There is a LOT of fishing gear out here! With a lot of feeding whales around. The aerial surveys have been documenting whales in this area for some time now. There also seems to be a good bit of Calanus here. We’ve done five bongo tows near feeding whales, all producing good catches of Calanus. Most exciting is that Leah Crowe had identified all of our right whales and two of them are VERY interesting! One is #1145 (also known as Grand Teton), who to the best of our knowledge has not been seen since 2010 and another is #1950, who to the best of our knowledge has not been seen since 2015. We believe that neither of these whales were seen in Cape Cod Bay this spring. Both are adult females with a calving history.

On May 11th, we headed out into the Great South Channel (GSC). The NEFSC aerial team surveyed there on the 9th and found no whales. Since it was the only area with any workable weather, we decided to head out and sample for zooplankton at some of Mark Baumgartner’s historical sampling stations…back when right whales actually came into GSC in May. Our samples were interesting in that they consisted of mostly slimy sludge (science speak from someone who only looks at mega fauna), little discernable Calanus, some jellies, and a few other invertebrates. The slimy sludge was near impossible to clean off of the bongo nets. Chris and Gen deployed one sonobuoy and heard a couple of sei whale down sweeps. After dissecting weather forecasts very meticulously, Captain Marco agreed to head to George’s Bank overnight!

On May 12th, we awoke on George’s Bank to fairly good sea conditions….and rain. We knew stormy weather was coming, so were fairly judicious with our time. We began to survey, watching from the ship’s bridge. Gen and Chris deployed another sonobuoy in a location that we’d come near again on the next track line. They heard sei and humpback calls. Around 1300hrs, we got into sei whale soup! Spectacular sight with sei whales skim feeding, surfacing in every direction, oh, and there are a few humpbacks mixed in …..and wait for it….there’s a right whale! We did our best to get close to the right
whale. It was fluking about every nine minutes, so feeding deeper. We had rain and fog and sei soup. We never got close to the right whale. As we tried to leave the area and continue on our track we got into another area of sei whales, and yes, found another single right whale. Sea conditions were holding for us nicely, but we knew we had to make a dash back to Nantucket Sound, at 10 knots. Gen and Chris heard sei, humpback, and probable right whale calls on a sonobuoy deployed near the first aggregation.
Both common and white-sided dolphin were also seen and heard.

We are currently headed to Avery Point, CT, the ship’s home port, to take on fuel and hide from this weather. See map below for overview of our efforts to date.


Map showing location of marine mammal sightings through May 12, 2019. Image credit: NOAA Fisheries/Elizabeth Josephson

Lisa Conger
Aboard R/V Connecticut
Spring 2019 Right Whale Cruise

Lots of Humpbacks and Fins

Although no North Atlantic right whales were sighted during the NEFSC’s aerial whale survey on May 9 east of Cape Cod in the Great South Channel, observers aboard the NOAA Twin Otter aircraft saw 34 fin whales, 53 humpbacks, 10 minke whales, and 6 sei whales.


This may be the last flight for the Twin Otter until June 1, when NEFSC aerial survey operations head north to help survey Canadian waters as whales continue to migrate into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Team


Whales Are Migrating

NEFSC scientists sighted two fin whales, three minke whales, 15 right whales and 13 sei whales during an aerial whale survey flight May 7 in Rhode Island Sound.

A Dynamic Management Area (DMA) established southwest of Martha’s Vineyard has been extended through May 21 to protect an aggregation of four North Atlantic right whales sighted on May 7 during the flight in a NOAA Twin Otter aircraft.

NOAA Northeast Region Right Whale Aerial Survey Report

Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) are in effect in Cape Cod Bay through May 15 and in Great South Channel through July 31.

An exploratory survey south of Nantucket was opkanned for today.


The NEFSC Aerial  Survey Team



Lots of Whales Offshore

A May 23 aerial survey of the Great South Channel – SCOPEX South had plenty to see: 21 sei whales, 3 humpback whales, 3 fin whales, 3 minke whales, 2 harbor porpoise, 54 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 10 common dolphins and 5 basking sharks.

The team also observed 23 North Atlantic right whales, three of them feeding and one named “Velcro” entangled, during the more than four-hour flight in the NOAA Twin Otter. Velcro is a male who was first sighted in 1983.

A five-hour flight May 21 in the same area also had a successful day, sighting 8 sei whales, 1 minke whale, 3 fin whales, 51 humpback whales, 13 pilot whales, 3 common dolphins, 4 offshore bottlenose dolphins, and 12 basking sharks.  Twenty right whales were also sighted, including 2 mother/calf pairs and 1 feeding whale.

The day before, on May 20, a six-hour survey in the Twin Otter of SCOPEX and Howell Swell sighted 16 North Atlantic right whales, 7 of them subsurface feeding and 9 surface feeding, including a mom/calf pair. The NEFSC aerial survey team also observed 7 minke whales, 4 fin whales, 20 sei whales, 7 humpback whales, 14 harbor porpoise, 55 basking sharks, and 8 tuna.

Humpbacks won the prize on the May 19 aerial survey of Great South Channel, SCOPEX NORTH, as 147 were sighted during the five-hour and 40 minute flight.  The team also observed 8 fin whales, 1 sei whale, 7 minke whales, 56 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 3 harbor porpoise, and 3 basking sharks.  Eleven North Atlantic right whales were also seen, eight of them feeding in one location. One right whale was found in poor health in another sighting.

A five-hour, 38-minute survey of Howell Swell on May 18 observed 26 right whales, many of them feeding, including a mom and calf pair and a surface active group (SAG). The NEFSC aerial team also sighted 3 humpback whales, 5 fin whales, 4 sei whales, 168 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 7 harbor porpoise, 17 basking sharks, and 1 ocean sunfish.

ON May 14, the aerial team spent five and a half hours in Great South Channel, searching for 40 minutes for an entangled humpback whale but were not able to relocate it.  The team observed 8 right whales, including a mom and calf pair. The mom was  identified as #4094. According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog maintained by the New England Aquarium, she was born in 2010 and was last seen in 2014. The aerial team  also observed 84 humpbacks, 7 fin whales, 6 minke whales, 13 pilot whales, 234 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 3 harbor porpoise, and 22 basking sharks.

Check out the interactive North Atlantic Right Whale Sightings Map  to see where the whales are being found and what management measures are in place to protect them in different areas.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Team






Whales and dolphins aplenty

Nineteen North Atlantic right whales were sighted during the May 12 aerial survey of Howell Swell. Thirteen of the whales were seen subfeeding and their position relayed to  the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, which is conducting the annual right whale survey and biology cruise in the Gulf of Maine. The group included 1 tagged whale. The other six whales were subfeeding and breaching.  Howell Swell is an undersea feature east of Cape Cod in the Gulf of Maine.


A right whale feeding, taken May 12 during a survey of Howell Swell. Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. Photo credit: Tim Cole, NEFSC/NOAA

The three and a half-hour survey flight also observed 2 sei whales, 132 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 35 harbor porpoise, and 16 basking sharks.

May 11 was another beautiful spring day. The NOAA Twin Otter with the NEFSC aerial survey team aboard flew in Howell Swell again and sighted 14 right whales, 13 of them subsurface feeding. Their positions were related to the Gordon Gunter.

During the more than five-hour survey the team also observed 3 sei whales, 137 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 25 harbor porpoise and 11 basking sharks.


A view of part of the Cape Cod National Seashore near the tip of Cape Cod from the Twin Otter on May 10. Photo by Christin Khan, NEFSC/NOAA.

Beautiful spring weather provided excellent flying conditions for the May 10 survey of Jeffreys Ledge and Wildcat Knoll in the Gulf of Maine. The more than five-hour flight observed 21 humpback whales, 13 fin whales, 17 sei whales, 3 minke whales, 2,782 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 2 harbor porpoise and 1 basking shark.  No North Atlantic right whales were observed.


The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group


Humpbacks and Seis Abound

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s  May 1 aerial survey of Franklin Basin resulted in sightings of 1 fin whale, 3 sei whales, 78 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and 1 harbor porpoise. Two North Atlantic right whales were also observed, one of them feeding with 30 sei whales.  The more than five-hour flight in the NOAA Twin Otter circled over the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, which departed Woods Hole April 29 for a right whale research study,  and the sei whale aggregation.

Lots of whales were sighted on April 30 during two surveys in the Great South Channel-SCOPEX N0rth. Fifty-seven humpback whales, 1 fin whale, 53 sei whales, 1 minke whale, and 46 Atlantic white-sided dolphins  were observed during the four and a half-hour Great South Channel-SCOPEX North survey. Three right whales were also observed, 2 sub-surface feeding and 1 breaching.

A one-hour directed survey within great South Channel observed 3 humpback whales, 1 fin whale and 1 right whale.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group



It’s All About Location

One harbor porpoise and no right whales were sighted during a three-hour survey  of Rhode Island Sound on April 28.

Just a day before, on April 27,  65 humpback whales, 7 fin whales, 5 sei whales, 2 minke whales, 1 Atlantic white-sided dolphin, 13 harbor porpoises and 8 basking sharks were observed on Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin. Three right whales were also sighted during the nearly six-hour survey.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group



Humpback heaven

A six-hour aerial survey of Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin on April 25 resulted in lots of whale sightings.  members of the NEFSC’s aerial survey team aboard the NOAA Twin Otter observed 6 fin whales, 56 humpback whales, 11 sei whales, 2 minke whales, and 2 harbor porpoise. The team also sighted 7 North Atlantic right whales; two of them were feeding.


The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group

Whales everywhere!

April 22 was a great day for the NEFSC’s aerial survey group as their nearly six-hour survey of Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin resulted in lots of sightings. Five fin whales, 37 humpbacks, 1 minke whale, 6 harbor porpoise, 22 Atlantic white-sided dolphins and 1 basking shark were observed from the Twin Otter, along with 29 North Atlantic right whales.  A mom and calf pair were among the animals.  Some of the right whales were feeding, while others joined sei whales to feed.

Yesterday, April 21, the aerial group sighted 9 fin whales, 39 humpbacks, 7 minke whales, 16 sei whales, 1514 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and 8 harbor porpoise on Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin.  In addition, the team also sighted 19 right whales,  a number of them during transit to photo identify several whales near Nahant, and most of those were feeding.

Earlier in the week, on April 19, the aerial team flew nearly five hours during a survey of Great South Channel -SCOPEX South & North.  Five fin whales, 4 humpbacks, and 1 right whale were sighted.

On April 18, no right whales were sighted and only 1 harbor porpoise and 1 bottlenose dolphin were sighted during a three-hour survey over Rhode Island Sound.


The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group

It’s That Time of Year in the Gulf of Maine

More North Atlantic right whales have been sighted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s aerial survey group in recent days. On April 9, four right whales were seen feeding in surface and subsurface waters during an aerial survey of Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin in the Gulf of Maine.  In addition, 11 fin whales, 17 humpback whales, 4 minke whales, and 125 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were also sighted during the five-hour flight.

Nine North Atlantic right whales were observed on April 17, with excellent conditions during a neatly six-hour aerial survey of Cashes Ledge in the NOAA Twin Otter. The right whales were sighted in transit, feeding.  Also sighted during the survey were 5 humpback whales, 4 fin whales, 15 sei whales, 3 minke whales, 29 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and 30 harbor porpoise.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group