Monday, November 15, 2010

{Press} Team Seeks Whale Mating Ground

Fenceviewer | November 15, 2010

"BAR HARBOR — A joint international team of right whale scientists from the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Canadian Whale Institute in New Brunswick will be conducting surveys in search of a potential mating ground for right whales in the Gulf of Maine this winter. Senior scientist Dr. Moira Brown will be leading the research team on four survey cruises from Mount Desert Island out to an area around Jordan Basin and Outer Falls.

An international team that will include researchers from Bar Harbor plans to launch a search from a Bar Harbor Whale Watch boat to search for a spot where northern right whales mate in winter.

An international team that will include researchers from Bar Harbor plans to launch a search from a Bar Harbor Whale Watch boat to search for a spot where northern right whales mate in winter. —PHOTO COURTESY ZACK KLYVER

“This is really quite amazing. That the unknown right whale mating ground might be right in our backyard. This is kind of like a Holy Grail for whale science,” said Sean Todd, director of whale research at College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale program. Researchers from Allied Whale will join the expedition.

“The Northeast Fisheries Science Center large whale aerial survey team from Woods Hole has been sighting large aggregations of right whales in this area since 2004 in the months of November, December and January. “This is the time of the year we think right whale mating takes place. We feel it is very important for us to finally get out to this area and try and determine if this is indeed the right whale mating ground,” Dr. Brown said.

Dr. Brown, who has been active in right whale research for nearly three decades, claims these research cruises could yield very interesting results. There is hope these boat surveys could provide important answers to a number of long standing mysteries surrounding right whales. Two critical questions have eluded researchers studying North Atlantic Right Whales. Where is the missing mating ground? Where do most of the male whales go during the winter?

“We have long speculated that there was an undiscovered mating ground and have wondered where many of our adult right whales go. In the past, most of the adult population seems to disappear during the winter months,” Dr. Brown said.

Funding for this research is coming from the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, TD Bank and the Canadian Wildlife Federation of the Canadian Whale Institute. The Canadian Whale Institute is chartering a 112-foot jet-powered catamaran whale watch boat and crew from Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.

“We are excited to play a part and believe this boat is perfectly suited for this whale research project that will take us out 50 to 60 miles offshore. It will be important to have a fast stable boat with great visibility, so we can get out when the weather clears, sight whales from far away, and return to port quickly when we lose daylight,” boat captain Matt Ketchen said.

Dr. Brown added, “Ideal weather conditions are a must. Our plan is to pick and choose the best days so we can effectively conduct research with any right whales we encounter.”

Research plans include photo ID, biopsy and collecting fecal samples, which may allow scientists to examine hormones and help characterize the sexes and reproductive status of the whales on Jordan Basin and assess if they are sexually active.

The North Atlantic Right Whale is the most endangered large whale population in the world. New England Aquarium scientists, who annually follow them from the Bay of Fundy to Florida and Georgia, presently estimate the population to be about 450 individuals.

“We are hoping to have representatives from the Maine Lobster Fishing Industry join us on some cruises – as we know they have a strong interest in knowing where right whales are located and understanding the science,” said Dr. Brown.

Researchers from Allied Whale, the marine mammal group at College of the Atlantic and researchers from the Maine Department of Marine Resources in Boothbay Harbor will be joining the surveys to help locate right whales. “We will be taking along seabird scientists too, as this will be an opportunity to learn more about pelagic seabird abundance in an area of the Gulf of Maine not often visited by scientists,” said Dr. Brown."

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