Right Whale Migration Update: March 1, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
I'm Anne Smrcina, the education coordinator of the sanctuary and your right whale correspondent. This report is a short one as sightings are still sporadic.

No New Calf Sightings Confirmed
Word from the northern right whale calving ground off of Georgia and Florida is still quite depressing, according to the researchers. No new calves have been spotted, and there has been only one confirmed sighting of a mother-calf pair (one other unconfirmed sighting of a single calf - it is not known if this is the same calf or a second one).

Scientists Puzzle It Out: What is the Big Picture?
The lack of calves, as well as a generally low number of adult whales, is puzzling the scientists. This year continues the poor showing of whales in the calving grounds and new calves being born (actually, this looks to be the worst of the past few years). One theory attributes the low birth rate to meteorological and oceanographic changes due to the El Nino-La Nina phenomena.

You Solve the Puzzle: Challenge Question #5
"Here's a challenge question for you. Why would weather and ocean water temperatures of only a few degrees affect birth rates in large (50 ton, 45-50 foot) whales?"

Feeding Ground Sightings Plentiful
Whale sightings have been plentiful in northern waters, however. Researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies and the National Marine Fisheries Service report that the aerial and boat surveys have located single whales and groups of whales feeding in Cape Cod Bay (both subsurface and surface skim feeding).

On the 20th of February about 23 whales were spotted in the general vicinity of 41 52N, 70 22W (a ten mile radius). Two days later the air and sea surveys counted some 46 whales (with duplication of sightings, scientists estimate this probably amounts to some 30 whales).

Challenge Question #6
"If the entire population of Right Whales is estimated to be 300 animals, and 30 animals were observed at one time, what percentage of that population was seen?"

SHHHHHHH...Baby Whale Sighted! Discussion of CQ #3
Last time we reported that NE Aquarium's staff sighted a newly born calf and mother. Although they wanted to tag them, they decided not too. Challenge Question #3 asked, "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?"

Anne's explanation is this: "With a population in such a critically endangered state, and every newborn a necessity for the continuation of the species, researchers have to be especially careful around the animals. Any extra noise or disturbance may affect the mother-calf relationship. Scientists must be sure that their actions do not separate the mother and calf or interrupt vital bonding behaviors in the early days. If they couldn't approach by drifting over, the researchers did not want to potentially frighten the animals and cause harm to the newborn."

Mrs. Howley's class put a lot of thought into their answer. Read it and ask yourself, just who are the scientists here!
"Since loud noises and lots of commotion might startle the whale we thought the boat should be quiet. What if the baby fell off and got separated from the mother? Maybe they also didn't want the baby to go under the boat or get cut. We were wondering if the mother might become angry and aggressive if they got too close. They probably didn't tag because they couldn't get close enough without disturbing the mother and her baby. From, Mrs. Howley's class in Southwest Harbor, Maine. :grade5fh@u98.k12.me.us"

From Swells to Whitecaps: Discussion of CQ #4
"What are scientists referring to when they talk about Beaufort Sea States, and how could that have any relationship to whale sightings?"

"Landlubbers" are those of us who live on the land, or are inexperienced sailors. For many "Landlubbers", the language of the sea is a foreign one. Anne can help us understand. Here's what she says about Beaufort Sea States:
"The Beaufort Sea States are based on wind and wave conditions. Still water is a 0, slight swell is a 1, ripples are two, and small waves are 3. It's when you get over 4 that the wave conditions make spotting difficult. When waves start to break and whitecaps form, visibility goes down. Right whales have very low profiles, no dorsal fins and are generally not very active in the southern calving ground. Therefore, sightings are often made by looking for blows, the small disturbances of water caused by whales coming to the surface, or seeing the whales directly, either on the surface or just underwater. With whitecaps and large waves, there's just too much commotion in the water."

Hopefully we'll have better news about mother-calf sightings in the next report. Until then, this is Anne Smrcina of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary signing off. I'll be filing my next report March 15, 2000.

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