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
NEFSC Aerial Survey Team
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
On Tuesday this week, I got a chance to go out with a crew from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution aboard their research vessel (R/V) Tioga. We searched for North Atlantic right whales, towed for plankton, and deployed both a slocum glider and an underwater microphone called a hydrophone. Just last week a crew from the center spotted more than a dozen whales in the same area we worked in, where there is also a moored listening station that captures the sounds made by several species of large whales when they are present. WHOI, our center, and the US Coast Guard are collaborating on the project.
DMON buoy near Martha’s Vineyard that detects the presence of whales in the area by recording their calls. Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan
The moored digital acoustic monitoring –DMON for short– buoy includes a real-time detection system and hydrophones that listen for and record the vocalizations, or “calls”of four kinds of baleen whales: sei, finback, humpback, and the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. The hydrophones record around the clock. Snippets of the recordings are sent back to shore every two hours. Eventually all the data are retrieved and then analyzed by experts who can identify which species of whale made the sounds..
A hydrophone array is prepared for deployment by WHOI scientists abroad the R/V Tioga. Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan
WHOI crew with slocum glider on the back deck of the R/V Tioga. Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan
We also deployed a WHOI slocum glider, an underwater robot that can also detect and record whale calls. The recordings are transmitted by satellite phone to a computer onshore that also helps navigate the glider from point to point. The glider powers its way up and down in the water for two to three weeks on a set of alkaline batteries.
These projects are examples of how NOAA scientists are collaborating with biologists and engineers to increase our understanding of the marine environment using state of the art technology. Although we didn’t find any right whales, it was a beautiful day on the water and I enjoyed learning about research underway by WHOI scientists.
NEFSC whale biologist
A six-hour survey May 26 in the Great South Channel, SCOPEX SOUTH led to lots of whale sightings, including 15 North Atlantic right whales feeding. One of those was “Velcro”, a male first seen in 1981 and observed a few days ago during another aerial survey.
The survey team also observed 7 humpback whales, 4 fin whales, 18 sei whales, 4 minke whales, 26 pilot whales, 45 Atlantic white-sided dolphin, 5 harbor porpoise, 28 basking sharks, and 4 ocean sunfish.
The NEFSC Aerial Survey Team