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



The Science of Whale Protection

large whale photographed from above while swiming near the ocean surface

Free-swimming North Atlantic right whale photographed during 2016 NOAA Fisheries aerial survey. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC/Allison Henry

On a Mission

Part of the NOAA Fisheries mission is to conserve and recover protected species while supporting responsible fishing and resource development. But what happens when forging ahead on one part of this mission seems to mean falling behind on another?

Case in point: endangered North Atlantic right whales and the Northeast’s American lobster fishery. These rare whales are losing ground after two decades of slow recovery; a major cause of death among adults in the population is entanglement in trap/pot gear, most of which is set in the American lobster fishery.

The stakes are high and humble me. The law requires us to recover North Atlantic right whales and to support sustainable trap and pot fisheries. My job – and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s job – is to provide the science to support both of these requirements.

It Takes a Team

If protecting whales and supporting fishing were easy, it would not need an intense effort to find solutions. Fortunately, a large team of people with a shared concern for the well-being of whales and fisheries is hard at work on the problem.

This team – called a Take Reduction Team – is required under federal law (the Marine Mammal Protection Act) in situations just like this one: when a commercial fishery poses a high risk to a marine mammal. It’s a way to bring people with fishing, fisheries, and marine mammal knowledge and skills together to find solutions.

whale disentanglement

NEFSC aerial survey team photograph of a large whale disentanglement response. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

The Science of Risk Reduction

In October 2018, the team asked for better decision-making tools.  Responding to this request, scientists at our science center got to work.  Across our research divisions, people applied our expertise, data, modeling skills, and capacity for visualizing data to get insights about the interplay of whales and fishing in ways that were out of reach just a few years ago.

The result of that work, I am pleased to report, is an important new tool that supported the team as they developed a set of proposed actions for pot and trap fisheries to substantially reduce the risk they pose to right whales.

Last week, the take reduction team came together in Providence, Rhode Island, in an intensive four-day meeting to craft ways of reducing risks posed to right whales by lobster gear across the region.  This new tool helped team members evaluate just how much risk reduction was likely under various scenarios, based on the likely presence of gear and whales in an area, and how seriously the gear could injure a whale.

Take reduction team members took that information, asked for more, and worked through numerous options specific to each lobster fishing area. Center scientists were on hand during the meeting to add more information and to use the tool in real-time as team members refined their plans.

Next steps for us are to review this work and to make the tool better.

The team’s work last week is a great example of true collaboration, both within our science center and among the people working toward solutions to a tough problem, and one of which we can be proud.

Jon Hare

NEFSC Science and Research Director


NEFSC Science Update: At Work, Looking Toward Spring

February 20, 2019

NEFSC Science and Research Director Jon Hare is stepping into the blogging business for a while. He’ll be updating readers as we restart our research year in the run-up to our 2019 field season. Go, Jon!

Starting our new year in February has been an adventure for the NEFSC. Stakeholders from across the region have been in touch with me and others on our staff asking about our plans for the rest of the year.

Almost everyone has heard about “the machinery of government” and I have had a chance recently to see the upside of it: the ability of our staff to quickly assess priorities and get on with delivering quality science to marine researchers, resource managers, and business operators.

This blog is generally used to highlight field work. Since I don’t do too much of that anymore (the downside of the director’s chair!) I have decided to use the blog to give updates on the status of projects that our stakeholders have asked about the most in recent weeks. I will be writing more of these as we gear up for spring and summer.

So here goes:

2019 Science Status Update 1,  by Jon Hare

Our spring bottom trawl survey aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow is set to leave Newport, RI March 9. That’s a few days later than first planned, but we are also extending the cruise by a few days. We plan to complete a full survey. This fieldwork is always influenced by weather, as well as vessel and equipment performance, so our staff is trained to make adjustments while still obtaining the best possible data.

Small research trawler entering harbor

NEFSC R/V Gloria Michelle.  NOAA/NEFSC photo by Adam Poquette

Our Canadian colleagues are leaving this week for their regular bottom trawl survey which, as usual, includes some stations in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Maine.  The NEFSC research vessel Gloria Michelle is on track to complete the annual spring trawl survey of Massachusetts state waters.

Two whales, heads visible just above the ocean surface

One of seven rare newborn right whales spotted so far this year off Florida rubs its mother’s head. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 20556-01

This time of year is also key for our work to recover endangered North Atlantic right whales.  In comparison with last year’s zero newborns, there’s good news from the calving grounds off the southeastern U.S.: 7 new right whale calves have been confirmed so far this year. Our aerial surveys in the Northeast were also busy this winter with a large number of whales sighted south of Cape Cod. These sightings triggered short-term protection areas for these animals.

We will be revising our stock assessment plans for the remainder of the year. We are working through timelines for biological sample and data processing, analyses, meetings, and other activities that underlie the many assessment products completed every year. We are in ongoing contact with fishery management partners in the region as we set priorities.

That’s it for my first blog.  Let me know what you want to hear about in my next one!

Jon Hare

NEFSC Science and Research Director

Animal surveillance

In our quest for turtles, we have traveled far and wide in the past 13 days. From Nova Scotia to New Jersey, we have kept almost constant watch during daylight hours in order to spot turtles basking in the sun, and in the process, we have seen many different marine creatures.

On July 8th, we awoke to pilot whales curious about the ship and they accompanied us for the entire morning.  A couple of days later, we crossed the Hague Line on the shelf of George’s Bank. Very soon after, we started seeing sperm whales,  some of them breaching – a behavior where they launch themselves  entirely out of the water landing in a large splash that we can see miles away! Sperm whales can dive to very deep depths and tend to inhabit waters around canyons. This habitat also attracts beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whales which we also spotted. We saw more pilot whales and small groups of bottlenose dolphins, many of them jumping out of the water as well. Meanwhile, above the surface, we have encountered many pelagic seabirds that are expected in this area, including the shearwater, storm petrel, and gull species. This day we also had south polar skuas flying around the ship.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We turned south on July 12th toward the mid-Atlantic and started to encounter larger numbers of common dolphins characterized by the hourglass pattern on the sides of their bodies. We have seen pods numbering in the hundreds out here so far, and they have given us great looks when they come in close to the ship.

Of course, the focus of this cruise is to find loggerhead turtles and we did encounter quite a few on July 13th. We spent a few days in the warmer waters off New Jersey working these animals where we also spotted a few leatherback turtles.

On July 16th, we turned to work our way north again and started our day with flat calm waters, the best sighting conditions so far. We saw many common dolphins, including a group of around 500, bottlenose dolphins, and many groups of Risso’s dolphins. The Risso’s are darker when they are younger, and lighten up (and gain some impressive scars) as they age.

In addition to the reptiles, mammals, and seabirds that we tend to see at the surface, there are of course, many fish species in the ocean. We have seen a lot of ocean sunfish along our entire track, a glance at a couple of rays, and also a few shark species including hammerheads, basking sharks, and three whale sharks on July 16th! This was a new species for almost everyone on board, and it took us a second to understand what we were seeing! Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching lengths of over 40 feet, and feed on zooplankton by filter-feeding. They are characterized by their size, but also by the spots on their dorsal body which helped us identify the species.

Only a few days left out here, but many chances yet to spot additional animals.

Leah Crowe and Lisa Conger
NEFSC Protected Species Branch, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

More Tales from the Night Shift

Predator worms, spines with eyeballs, and a mystery

I’m Hannah Blair, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow for the 2017 sea turtle and cetacean cruise.  This trip is my first foray into the world of zooplankton identification. Each night, we sift through the contents of targeted zooplankton trawls, pull individual plankton out of each sample collected by the nets, and measure and photograph what we find. I’ve slowly been learning to recognize the categories these tiny animals belong to. For example, we pull up lots and lots of chaetognaths, or arrow worms, a group of predatory worms!

Tiny transparent marine worms

Carnivorous, predatory arrow worms that prey on other plankton. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We find many kinds of gelatinous animals, such as jellyfish, as well as a number of crustaceans, like these adorable bug-eyed megalops, an early crab life stage.

Tiny bright red-orange early life-stage crab

Megalops, early life stage crab. Who doesn’t love those googly eyes? Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/ Cassie Fries

We also find fish larvae of various sizes and shapes, from the wide and flat larvae of flounder to fish so small they look like spines with eyeballs. After going through a few hauls, you start to recognize what animal belongs with what category.

And then, this guy appeared:

Sea slug,

There’s no zooplankton too odd for Betsy Broughton’s mad identification skills. Mystery solved and sea slug unmasked. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Joe Warren

The first time we saw it, we dismissed it as an unidentifiable piece of another animal. But then we got another, and another. When, on the third night, we got six in one haul, we had to stop and take a closer look.

As someone who’s spent many an hour identifying species, whether for classes or for surveys (or for fun), I am familiar with the frustration of not being able to figure out what species an animal or plant is, and the satisfaction of finally pinning it down. However, at first we couldn’t even determine what group of animals we should start narrowing down from! Was it a flatworm? Some type of echinoderm (starfish and relatives) larva?

After spending hours searching through identification keys and checking our trusty friend Google Images, our resident marine zooplankton expert Betsy Broughton was able to track it down. Meet Phylliroe bucephala, a free-swimming nudibranch!

Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug, and are a highly varied group. Searching the term (which I highly recommend, I love these guys) will bring up many photos of brightly-colored tropical sea slugs, crawling around on the ocean floor. But Phylliroe is pelagic, which means it lives up in the water column, swimming much like a fish as it searches for tasty jellyfish prey. Check out this link to see images and even a video of them swimming through the water!

We’ve found a lot of cool animals in our trawls, but this one is definitely my favorite so far.


Hannah Blair

Oceanography Team, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow


Pop Goes the HARP

Deep ocean sound recorders on the deck of a research dhip

Eric Matzen among the HARPS. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Henry Milliken

This cruise aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow is dedicated to sea turtle ecology and oceanography, but we have also been successful replacing passive acoustic recording instruments called HARPs (High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages), made by the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  These instruments have to be replaced annually, and we are entering our third year of data collection using them.

The HARPS sit on the edge of shelf-break canyons at about 1000 m deep. We have to be exact in our drop points or the units could descend to crushing depths in the canyons or land in shallow water near fishing activity.

We position the ship over the instrument, contact the acoustic release, and give the release command, which jettisons the ballast weights on the unit. It takes about 15 minutes for the HARP to float to the surface, so this is an exciting time waiting and watching. Everyone wants to be the first to spot the surfaced unit, but on the first recovery, Mate Dana Mancinelli spotted the HARP while it was still under water on its way up.  That is good spotting!

yellow recording device and orange floats bobbing on the surface ot he water

HARP floating at the surface having successfully jettisoned the ballast that’s kept it on the ocean bottom for the past year. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Leah Crowe

Large yellow recording being pulled onto resarch vessel

HARP coming aboard during last stage of retrieval operation. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Heather Haas

The three recorders we are replacing are part of an  array of eight such instruments covering waters from Northeast Georges Bank to Florida. This network is a combined effort of NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers to understand biological activity along the U.S. continental shelf break before the planned seismic exploration starts off the United States’ Eastern Seaboard.  They are part of the US NorthEast Passive Acoustic Sensing Network. While deployed, the HARPS record sounds made by many species including baleen whales, sperm whales, beaked whales, and dolphins.

Eric Matzen, NEFSC Protected Species Branch

Annamaria Izzi, Integrated Statistics

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Another Mystery Mom!

2017 has been a very low calving year for the North Atlantic right whale population. Only 3 calves were documented in the Southeast U.S. calving grounds – the lowest number on record since 2000, when only one calf was sighted. In the intervening years, calving numbers have fluctuated, but on the whole have been lower than right whale researchers would like to see for the recovery of such a critically endangered species.

On April 12, both the Center for Coastal Studies and NEFSC aerial surveys documented a new mom & calf pair for the season, bringing the calf total for 2017 up to 4. While a sighting of new mom & calf pairs outside of the calving grounds is not unheard of, it is not common. So we were very excited Sunday (April 30) when we realized that we had found yet another new mom & calf pair for 2017! I tentatively identified the whale as catalog #1515 while still in the air, but researchers at the New England Aquarium, which houses and manages the North Atlantic right whale catalog, confirmed my identification on Monday morning. The new mom and calf were sighted feeding in the Great South Channel.


New right whale mom identified as #1515. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Tim Cole, NEFSC

#1515 has not been seen since 2009 (also with a calf), so she had been presumed dead by the New England Aquarium. She has been sighted infrequently since 1985 and usually only down on the Southeast U.S. calving grounds, so, much like our other recent mom/calf sighting of 1412, we do not know where she spends the majority of her time. Another mystery mom!


Calf of right whale #1515. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Tim Cole, NEFSC

Images taken under MMPA research permit #17355 by Tim Cole, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Allison Henry
NEFSC Aerial Survey Team

Little Boat, Big Whales

On March 6, we took advantage of fair weather and calm winds to look for North Atlantic right whales south of Martha’s Vineyard.  By day’s end we’d seen 5, and the New England Aquarium aerial survey team we are working with spotted another 9. Colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were also working in the area  were aboard the WHOI R/V Tioga.


Survey crew with cheerful smiles despite freezing air temperatures aboard the R/V Selkie, (left to right) Leah Crowe, Christin Khan, Allison Henry, and Tim Cole of the NEFSC Protected Species Branch. Photo credit NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Darcie Cole

We’re collecting data important for documenting the distribution, movement, and health of these rare animals.  We also coordinate with the New England Aquarium team that is photographing whales from the air as part of their survey.

We’re focused on gathering several kinds of information: photographs that are used to identify individual animals, and small samples of skin and feces.


R/V Selkie underway (white plume in the water) photographed by the New England Aquarium aerial survey team.  At left, a still camera is pointed out a small window to photograph whales.  Photo credit NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Ester Quintana, New England Aquarium

Our sightings of 5 whales, along with 9 more spotted by the aerial survey team were the basis for establishing an 1800 mi2 voluntary speed restriction zone (Dynamic Management Area-DMA) that will remain in place for at least 2 weeks.  Our research is being conducted under federal research permit  #17355-01, NMFS/NEFSC.

The R/V Selkie Survey Team