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Right Whale Migration Update: February 16, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank
Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary! I'm Anne Smrcina, the education coordinator of the sanctuary (located off Cape Cod, MA) and your right whale correspondent. I'll be contacting a variety of scientists, naturalists and government officials over the next few months to give you the latest updates on right whale migrations and the status of the population.

The saga of the right whale is one of many ups and downs. There are whales to be seen, in both the northern feeding grounds and in the southern calving area, but the number of calves is still pitifully small.

Only One Confirmed Mother and Calf Sighting
To date, there is only one confirmed calf sighting, located with its mother off Ossabow Island, halfway up the Georgia coast. The confirmation on the first sighting was made by Lisa Conger of the New England Aquarium's Right Whale Research Group. There has also been an unconfirmed sighting of a second calf off St. Augustine, Florida.

Right Whale Research Group Identifies Individuals
These researchers use airplanes to fly search patterns over the known calving grounds in search of right whales. When individuals are spotted, a boat-based team tries to rendezvous with the whales. Photographs are taken of the whales to be used for identification purposes by both the plane and boat teams. It is very difficult to identify these animals in the field since it is hard to see the complete callosity pattern (see Response to Challenge Question #1) at any one time. Although at times the scientists may suspect which whale it is, since there are so few whales and many of these researchers have been studying this whale population for many years. In addition to photographs, whenever it is possible, the scientists try to take skin samples, also called biopsy samples, using a small dart. (The dart is fired into the skin and upper layer of blubber and then pulled out by its connecting line which is kept in the boat.) Another research project involves tagging the whale with a radio tag to allow scientists to follow the movements of the animal.

NE Aquarium's Sighting Report
For this first mother-calf pair, the boat based sighting team consisted of Chris Slay and Amy Knowlton of the NE Aquarium staff.

Here's part of Chris's Early Warning System Update Report from Feb. 3, 2000:

"When we arrived the calf appeared to be riding along on mom's back as mom swam at a snail's pace beneath the surface. Junior slid off to one side and they swam along in our direction. We had positioned ourselves about 150 meters ahead of them hoping mom would pass close enough to allow us to tag. As they passed (slightly out of range) we could see the calf was but a sausage, not five meters long, perhaps 4.5, and fetal creases still marked its flank. This calf appeared to have been born within days of our encounter. We resolved to use a very passive "approach" with this pair, never motoring above idle. Soon it became obvious it wasn't going to be a day for tagging. We watched the pair moving slowly through the sea as we all rolled into the shadow of another day and the lights of the trawlers to the west marked our passage home."

Challenge Question #3
"Why would the researchers use a passive approach on this pair and why do you think they decided it was not a day for tagging?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Animals Sighted in Calving Grounds
For the most part, the scientists have been reporting that there are about a dozen animals spotted in the calving ground so far, but bad weather during much of the season so far has prevented them from making as many flights as they would have wished.

Bad Sighting Weather in Northern Waters
In northern waters, scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies and Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Office have also been undertaking a series of overflights to locate feeding whales in Cape Cod Bay and the southern portion of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Here too, inclement weather has cancelled several trips. These trips, in both northern and southern grounds are important in conservation efforts. When whales are spotted, their locations are relayed to ships in the area to prevent possible collisions (also called "whale strikes").

Many Whales Sighted in Cape Cod Bay

Range of Right Whale
Map Courtesy of
Macalaster College

The Center also employs its research vessel R/V Shearwater to conduct right whale habitat studies, including collecting plankton samples to discover what it is the whales are eating. On February 13, 2000, researchers observed some 20 whales in Cape Cod Bay [within a 13 nautical mile radius from position 41 56N 70 13W], many of which were feeding. Additional whales were sighted by the Coast Guard and Massachusetts Environmental Police in an area called Jeffrey's Ledge (a stretch of water north of the the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary and Boston shipping lanes, and south of the Portland, Maine shipping lanes). All of these reports were of adult whales, no confirmed calves up north yet.

On Feb. 10th, the aerial flight over Cape Cod Bay reported four sightings consisting of 15 whales. The researchers noted that sighting conditions were good with relatively clear visibility and a Beaufort sea state between 2 and 4 all day. This fact leads us to ask

Challenge Question #4
"What are the scientists referring to when they talk about Beaufort sea states and how could that have any relationship to whale sightings?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Response to Challenge Question #1:
"How do the researchers tell one whale from another? How do they identify each individual?"

Anne Smrcina says: " Right whales are identified by the patterns of the callosities (areas of rough skin) on their heads, particularly on the rostrum (top of the head), over the eyes, around the mouths, under the chin (many of the areas where humans have hair). The callosities are filled with small crustaceans called whale lice (they look like little crabs), that give the callosity its color (white, yellowish-white, or pinkish-white). Each whale has a different arrangement of these callosities.

Response to Challenge Question #2:
"Why is the loss of a female always of great concern?"

Anne Smrcina says: "The loss of a female also means the loss of a potential mother. This 3 year old female would have been ready to breed in only 2 years. Because the Right Whale population is so small, each female is of great importance. In fact, studies of the mitochondiral DNA from 150 Right Whales have led scientists to conclude that there is just one breeding population and that all the whales are descended from only five groups of related females."

Thank you for all your correct responses.

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

The Next Right Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on March 1, 2000.

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