Endangered right whales add record number of calves

NH researcher in tiny plane tracks their slow swim south, alerts nearby ships

Dianna Schulte

(The following article is reprinted, with permission, from a special issue of the Blue Ocean Society Newsletter. The author is president and research coordinator of the Portsmouth-based society.)

Greetings from the south! This winter I am based near Charleston, S.C., coordinating aerial surveys looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales as they pass by on their journey south to their only known calving grounds. North Atlantic right whales are a species that we are occasionally lucky enough to see up north during the summer, and I love being able to learn even more about them by following them down south for the winter.

Our season began on November 15, 2008. The survey involves flying standard track lines that extend 35 miles off shore and cover the entire S.C. coastline as well as some of northern Georgia. The survey area is so large that it must be broken down into three sections, only one of which can be flown each day.

Female right whale and calf – note characteristic V-shaped blow by calf. (NOAA photograph)

Our small team of three researchers and two pilots flies every day that the weather cooperates — even weekends and holidays. We fly up to 8 hours per day in a small twin-engine aircraft. Imagine a Volkswagen Beetle with wings, but more narrow! It is a tight fit for the four people on board, plus all of our equipment. And no, there is no lavatory.

Why do we do this? Right whales are endangered and only about 400 remain. One of the major threats to their survival is ship traffic. Right whales are slow-swimming and being fatally wounded by large ships is sadly common. By flying our surveys and locating the whales, we are able to transfer the exact locations of whales to ships in the area, thus reducing the risk of a collision. We are also able to identify the individual whales by taking digital images of them. Tracking which whales are here tells researchers even more about the population. Other teams in Georgia and Florida are doing similar work, and we coordinate daily on all of our sightings.

As spring approaches, these whales will head north to the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy where we can hope to see them on our whale watch trips. One of the whales we’ve seen down here already was one that we spotted up north near Jeffreys Ledge on one of our whale watches last fall. It’s always exciting to be able to match up these sightings!

As long and tiring as our work days are, I love my job and feel that I am able to make a direct positive impact on the survival of this species. Without these surveys, whales could go undetected in major shipping areas (Charleston and Savannah) and would certainly be at greater risk of an encounter with a large vessel. The cramped plane and caffeine-free mornings are always worth it.

Just nine days into our survey season, we found the first mother and calf pair! While in typical winters, most calves are born in January and February, this year is proving to be different in many respects!

Currently 39 calves have been born — a record high number for a single season — and the season is not over yet!  Our team has spotted a mother that has not been seen in any other area yet, as well as a dozen other whales that have also gone under the radar of the other teams.

One of my favorite sights so far was of the whale named Shenandoah and her new calf. The calf was extremely playful and was practicing its breaching skills over and over! The splashes, even from a young calf, were very impressive! After a few minutes of enthusiastic jumping, the calf swam up on Shenandoah’s back, appearing to be tired. But maybe this was still play behavior as the calf kept trying to cover its mother’s blowholes. Perhaps even whale babies can be mischievous.

In addition to all of the right whales, we have the pleasure of observing other marine species like basking sharks, ocean sunfish, loggerhead turtles and even a humpback whale cavorting with bottlenose dolphins!

With just under two months left of the season, I am looking forward to more exciting sightings and more baby whales! By April most of the right whales will be on their way north to their summer feeding grounds, and I will be home soon afterward to look for our marine life friends on Jeffreys Ledge!

(Learn more about right whales: www.blueoceansociety.org/eg.htm.)

April, 2009