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.

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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…..er, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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.

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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

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.

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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!

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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

Sighting an Entangled Humpback

The NEFSC aerial survey group flew more than five hours May 14 to survey Cashes Ledge.  The team sighted an entangled humpback on the first line of the survey, reported it, and and stayed on station until a disentanglement team from the Center for Coastal Studies arrived on the scene. This is the third time the whale, an adult female named Spinnaker, has had an assisted disentanglement.  As Leah Crowe of the aerial team noted, she “is very lucky that all the pieces – area surveyed, people and weather – fell into place to free her.”

entangled humpabck with boat nearby

Entangled humpback whale named Spinnaker sighted by the NEFSC aerial survey group May 14. A disentanglement team stands by.  Heavy fishing gear is puling the whale down,  with a yellow float visible to the right of the whale. Photo by Leah Crowe, NEFSC/NOAA taken under MMPA research permit # 17355.

Shadow of NOAA Twin Otter on surface near Spinnaker

The shadow of the NOAA Twin Otter with the aerial survey team appears on the ocean surface next to Spinnaker. Photo by Leah Crowe, NEFSC/NOAA taken under MMPA research permit # 17355.

close-up of whale trailing float

Closer view of Spinnaker trailing fishing line and a float. Photo by Leah Crowe, NEFSC/NOAA taken under MMPA research permit # 17355.

A second humpback whale, along with 7 fin whales, 8 sei whales, 3 minke whales, 5 harbor porpoise and 3 basking sharks were sighted, along with 4 North Atlantic right whales.

The NEFSC Survey Group