Right Whale Migration Update: March 4, 1998
Some interesting news from both the east and west coasts this week.
You can blame it on El Nino-- Chris Slay from the New England Aquarium's Right Whale Research Group has reported that they have been able to make very few aerial surveys of the southeast critical habitat, due to the poor weather.
Over the past few weeks, only one flight on Feb. 9th revealed a mother-calf pair, and a flight on 2/19 showed a pair of adults (or large juveniles) off the Jacksonville Beach coastline.
However, up north aerial overflights and boat patrols have been observing large numbers of feeding whales in Cape Cod Bay (although no mother-calf pairs yet). The Center for Coastal Studies and the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries spotted 19 whales in the eastern part of Cape Cod Bay on February 20th, while researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies, along with their peers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the International Wildlife Coalition counted 33 whales a week later on Feb. 28th.
The weather up north has been relatively mild with quite a few days offering favorable flying conditions (low winds, calm seas with few whitecaps to hide the whales from sight).
One point near where whales were sighted has the following coordinates: 41.53N, 70.22W
Dave Wiley, a researcher with the International Wildlife Coalition, is involved in a right whale project that is attempting to monitor habitat use.
He hopes to be able to attach (with use of a suction cup apparatus) a multi-sensor VHS radio tag on a right whale. Once attached, the tag would be able to transmit information about the whale's speed, depth of dive, body orientation, and fine scale movements. This information may be used by government agencies and other groups concerned about whales and marine resources in the development of better marine management plans. By better understanding how animals move, managers can broadcast better warnings to ships when whales are spotted. By finding out how deep the animals dive, fishermen and marine fishery agency regulators can better understand what type of gear may be threatening whale safety (whales sometimes get entangled in gear). Whale speeds can be used in the development of fishing gear that will break at certain strengths (to prevent entanglement).
Dave Wiley is working coopertively on this project with Peter Tyack of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, using tags from Dr. Jeff Goodyear of the Ecology Research Group in Victoria, British Columbia and other tags developed in Dr. Tyack's lab. The research has been funded through a grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust from monies raised from the sale of the state's environmental license plate. (The license plate shows a right whale tail -- I have one on my car.)
Surprisingly, two right whales were also observed by a tugboat in the Ambrose/Barnegat Traffic Lanes also on Feb. 28th. The sighting was confirmed by a whale watch vessel out of Highlands, NJ. (Coodinates 40 11N, 73 48W.) Interestingly, the whales were reported to be heading in a southerly direction and have not been resighted since then. What's up?
A northward journey is probably what is happening with the mother-calf pair Chris Slay saw on Feb. 9th. The whales are possibly making their way past the gauntlet of ship traffic from Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City on their way to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Cape Cod Bay. Find these ports on a map and you'll see why ship traffic is such a concern during right whale migration. Hopefully we'll have some word that they've safely made it up here quite soon.
NEWS FLASH: Rare Right Whale Sighted in Monterey Bay
Although this report is usually about the North Atlantic population of northern right whales, there is another group of these animals out there -- a Pacific population. The Pacific population is believed to be even smaller than the Atlantic population and quite probably on the road to extinction.
These whales are seldom seen -- but what follows is a press release from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (released on March 2nd) about an unusual sighting there.
Rare Right Whale Sighted in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary dateline March 2
An extremely rare northern right whale, a species nearly extinct, was spotted off the Big Sur Coast last week, fleeing a pair of apparently aggressive gray whales in an unusual interaction observed by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials.
Monterey Bay Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros and NOAA Corps pilot Lt.
Commander Matt Pickett, were aboard the Sanctuary airplane SEA WOLF, assessing storm damage along the Big Sur Coast near Cape San Martin, when large splashes appeared in the ocean below them near a pod of gray whales.
"We looked down and saw a large black whale being chased by several gray whales," Douros said. "I couldn't believe it. For a biologist this is so exciting, both because of the rareness of the whale and also because of the interaction between the two species."
Pickett, who has flown right whale census projects off the East Coast, confirmed the sighting.
"There were probably 12 gray whales in an area about a quarter square mile near the right whale, although only two were obviously interacting with the right whale. We saw one group of six gray whales swimming together, northbound, several hundred yards south of the right whale," Douros added.
For about 15 minutes Douros and Pickett circled the whales, watching the right whale veer back and forth, splash and dive repeatedly as it tried to elude the pursuing gray whales. Eventually the right whale submerged for an extended period and Douros and Pickett continued their flight. While the right whale was swimming northbound, eluding the gray whales, neither Douros or Pickett were confident that they could predict the whale's overall direction of travel.
It is only the fourth sighting of a right whale off the California coast in the past 15 years. The sighting, and unusual behavior of the gray whales, is of great interest to marine biologists.
"It's an extraordinary, unprecedented sighting," said Alan Baldridge, a cetacean expert recently retired from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Laboratory. "They are the rarest large whale in the North Pacific. We've never heard of aggressive behavior between baleen whales. We see aggressive interactions between baleen and toothed whales -- such as orcas. But nothing like this."
[NOTE: In a past Journey North report we covered the case where orcas in the Channel Islands seemed to be forming gauntlets through which the migrating gray whales had to pass. These orca corridors between the islands are very dangerous for young and/or sick members of the gray whale population.]
Right whales were hunted to the brink of extinction near the turn of the century, before receiving federal protection in 1937. Some experts estimate that as few as 50 to 100 right whales are left in the Eastern Pacific, ranging off the coast from Mexico to Alaska. It is not a species expected to survive.
"Their numbers are so low in the Eastern Pacific, we've concluded that so few remain, that it is not a viable population," Baldridge said. "There are a few stragglers, but no sign of reproduction."
Over the past 15 years, only three verified sightings have been recorded in the Eastern Pacific. In April 1995 National Marine Fisheries Service biologists observed a right whale off Point Piedras Blancas near Cambria on the southern edge of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
Prior to that the most recent sightings had been in March 1982 off Half Moon Bay, and in March 1981 in the Santa Barbara Channel in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The Monterey Bay Sanctuary is developing a plan to conduct a right whale census, possibly for later in the week. Commercial fishermen and whale watch operators [this is now gray whale migration whale watching season] to keep a look out for the right whale.
End of press release.
That's all for this report. This is Anne Smrcina, education coordinator for the Stellwagen
Bank National Marine Sanctuary signing off.
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