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Right Whale Migration Update: February 17, 1999

Today's Report Includes:

The Third's a Charm--But More Are Needed
Ahoy there Journey North students. This is Anne Smrcina, from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Today's Right Whale report comes with more pessimistic news. Sightings in the southern calving grounds have been very sparse. Researchers report that overflights may now be focusing on dolphins and turtles due to an absence of right whales. A bit of good news was relayed -- a third mother and calf pair was spotted on Sunday, Feb. 7th. However, three is a very small number of births for such a critically endangered species (only about 300 surviving in the North Atlantic).
Other News From the Right Whale Calving Grounds
The New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Group, which monitors right whales in the Georgia/Florida calving grounds sends out periodic reports, which can be found on the excellent WWW home page "WhaleNet." (Or directly to right whale reports.)

Chris Slay of the NE Aquarium notes in his 1/29-2/11 report:
"The two weeks covered by this update would, in any other winter, include right whale sightings information. But this year, early February reads like mid-March. Nearshore water temps are pushing 20 degrees Celsius and climbing. The gannets are leaving; basking sharks never showed; ubiquitous pods of bottlenose dolphins prowl like boisterous streetgangs; Spanish mackerel shred schools of bait fish; an armada of leatherbacks passed through, heading north; loggerheads are scattered like shelled corn across a dark blue bedspread; cownose rays lay like close-fitted tiles across acres of ocean; molas, lying on their side, watch us fly by. It doesn't feel like midwinter."

I mentioned in my last report that researchers had tagged a mother-calf pair in the calving grounds. This tag, a radiotag, allows scientists to follow the movements of the whale -- from a boat the researchers must be within two miles of the whale, from the air the researchers can be some 20 (sometimes 30) nautical miles away from the transmitter.
Discussion of Challenge Question # 1
Last week's Challenge Question # 1 was about this research -- I asked "Why would scientists want to know about the LOCAL movements of right whales?" We know that scientists are interested in the long range migrations -- where the whales go to calve, breed and feed. But local movements in each of these grounds is important too. Chris Slay and the other members of the Early Warning System group answered the question for me:

"Attaching a thumb-sized radio transmitter to a mom will allow us to track her for several days, maybe weeks, during her stay in the calving ground. We'd like to know more about the behavior of these animals, especially what traits make them so vulnerable to ships. For example:
  • Do calves tend to nurse more at certain times than others?
  • Do mothers sleep at the surface during the day or at night?
  • How fast do they swim and do they move more during day or night?
  • Are there behavioral traits associated with water depth or other oceanographic features which increase the vulnerability of these animals to ship strike?
  • Exactly what percentage of time do they spend at the surface, visible to aerial survey teams?

This information will help policy makers develop management strategies to better protect the whales and their habitats."

Here are this week's first Challenge Questions for you:

Challenge Question #3
"Based on the types of information the scientists want to find out, develop a hypothesis of your own that might be tested with the results they gather. (Remember-- A hypothesis is an educated guess based on prior knowledge. Or as the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary reports "a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences."

Challenge Question #4
"Why do you think the scientists can follow the whale from 20-30 nautical miles in a plane, but only 2 miles from the boat?

(To respond to these Challenge Questions, please follow the instructions at the end of this report.)

Following the Trail of Tagged Whales
The mother-calf pair that had been tagged gave results for a couple of weeks. These results, plus lots of great information about this tagging project can be found at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site.

For a while the whales seemed to be hanging out around the Jacksonville, FL area. On 1/29 their position was 30.03 N, -80.98 W, but a week later they were at 31.67 N, -80.75 W.

Challenge Question #5
"In which direction are the whales heading? Where do you think they are going?"

Meanwhile, scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. and the National Marine Fisheries Service are reporting varying numbers of whales in Cape Cod Bay and in waters around Cape Cod. On Feb. 9th three whales were spotted at approximately 41.90 N, -70.27W. On Feb. 6th a whale was spotted at 40.88N, -70.65W near Nantucket.

Discussion of Challenge Question # 2

Range of the Right Whale
Map Courtesy of
Macalaster College

Why are whales in both northern and southern waters in the winter? This is the answer to Challenge Question #2 of last week. It seems that only pregnant females head to the calving grounds (although occasionally juveniles and other members of the population may accompany the mothers-to-be). But most of the population disappears in the winter months, with some of them showing up in the coastal waters of Massachusetts to feed on concentrations of copepods (small crustaceans, each smaller than a grain of rice). These 50-ton whales need to consume large quantities of these planktonic creatures to survive and grow. Cape Cod Bay, in the Jan-March time frame, seems to be when Calanus copepods are most abundant (and Calanus seems to be the right whales' favorite food).

Unlike the humpback whales which have their calving and breeding grounds in the same area (the Caribbean), the right whales have different breeding and calving grounds -- they use the waters in the Bay of Fundy and the Scotian shelf as their breeding grounds (in the late summer).

That's all for this report. This is Anne Smrcina of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary signing off.

How to Respond to Today's Right Whale Challenge Questions:

Please answer ONLY ONE question in each e-mail message!:

1. Address an E-mail message to: jn-challenge-rwhale@learner.org

2. IMPORTANT: In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #3 (or Challenge Question #4 or #5).

3. In the body of the EACH message, give your answer to ONE question above.

The Next Right Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on March 3, 1999.

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