Tuesday, March 29, 2011

{Press} Right whales leaving Georgia with 20 new calves

The Associated Press | www.miamiherald.com

"SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Endangered right whales are leaving Georgia waters after researchers documented 20 newborns during the calving season that ends this month.

As the whales were heading north for the summer, an aerial survey team spotted the last of the calves swimming with its mother off Tybee Island a week ago.

"Twenty calves is slightly above average, so that's encouraging," said Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Right whales are highly endangered, with researchers estimating as few as 350 still exist. The large whales are closely monitored every December through March when they migrate to the warm waters off the southern Atlantic coast to birth their young.

The number of calves born each year has varied widely in the last 20 years. Only one calf was documented in 2000, but the next year researchers spotted 31, said Tricia Naessig, right whale survey coordinator for the EcoHealth Alliance.

The 2011 calving season was just a notch better than last year, when 19 right whale calves were reported off the U.S. coast.

Entanglement in fishing gear poses one of the greatest threats to right whales, and survey teams saw five entangled whales this season. Wildlife biologists managed to sedate one of the whales and remove the fishing lines - a rare feat in the wild - but the whale was later found dead."

{Press} Calving season produces 20 baby right whales off the coast of Georgia

Savannahnow.com | Mary Landers |March 24, 2011

"Right whales are headed out of Georgia waters and back north after a calving season that produced 20 of the highly endangered large whales.

An aerial survey team documented the last of the new babies March 18 just off Tybee Island. It was swimming with its mother, a 10-year-old whale named Harmony, and appeared to be about a month old. Harmony has given birth once before.

“Twenty calves is slightly above average, so that’s encouraging,” said Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “In addition to mom/calf pairs, the survey teams documented approximately
120 other individual right whales in the Southeast this winter.”

Tricia Naessig, right whale survey coordinator with the EcoHealth Alliance, on Wednesday bumped that number up to 140 whales, not including the new calves. The number of calves born in the last two decades has varied widely by year, Naessig said. Just one calf was born in 2000, but the next year that number was up to 31.

EcoHealth Alliance, formerly called Wildlife Trust, is a nonprofit that along with state and federal agencies monitors and catalogs right whales.

About 450-470 North Atlantic right whales are believed to exist, Naessig said. Their population was decimated by whalers in the 1800s when they were the “right” whale to hunt because they are big, slow and float when killed. Considered an urban whale because they swim near the highly populated U.S. East Coast, right whales feed in the waters off New England in the summer, eating tiny crustaceans they filter through their baleen plates. In winter, pregnant females and some juveniles head south to their only known calving area, off the Georgia and Florida coasts. They don’t feed while they’re in these waters.

Right whales seemed to head a little farther south than usual this year, presumably because of colder water temperatures, George said.

Aerial surveys also produced four sightings of great white sharks, each about seven or eight miles off Jekyll and Cumberland islands. Carolyn Belcher, a DNR biologist who studies sharks, said it’s theorized that the sharks follow pregnant right whales to the calving grounds.

“It’s like lions and other big predators; they go for the weak, the sick and the young,” she said. In fact, over the last decade bite marks on the carcasses of right whales found in the Southeast have been identified as coming from great whites.

It’s unclear if great white sharks are more abundant off Georgia than they were in the past, George said. It’s possible that the advent of digital photography has just made it easier to identify the rare sharks during aerial surveys. Belcher said they prefer cold, deep water.

“To my knowledge there have not been any close to the beach line where you’d worry about them encountering somebody swimming,” she said.

Modern threats to right whales include collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear. The three aerial survey teams that covered the coast from the southern North Carolina border to south of St. Augustine, Fla., documented five newly discovered entangled whales this season. Biologists, including George and DNR colleague Mark Dodd, were able to sedate one of those whales and remove fishing gear from it, but the young female was subsequently found dead. It was only the second time a whale or dolphin was sedated in the wild, the first time having been in 2009, with largely the same team of biologists. Of the other entangled whales seen in the Southeast this season, three haven’t been seen again and one, a new mother, “looked fine the last time she was sighted,” George said.

Naessig said one unusual sighting this season was also a sad one. On Christmas Day a calf was seen swimming by itself.

“The assumption was the calf would not survive,” she said. “It’s not something we see often at all. We’re not sure who the mother was or what were the circumstances. It could be that something happened to the mother. Or there is the possibility the mother abandoned the calf. That does happen in the wild.”

George and his team got a tissue sample of skin and blubber from the calf. That sample will be used to try to make a genetic match and identify its mother, a possibility because 60 percent of the right whales that have been catalogued by photographs are also genetically catalogued with tissue samples.

“There’s a good chance we can connect them,” Naessig said.

In their ongoing research, DNR biologists sampled 12 calves and 10 other whales just this season."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

{Update} Up to 20 new right whale calves!

What wonderful news - we are now up to 20 new North Atlantic right whale calves this season! Every new calf is so important for this critically endangered population which only numbers around 400 individuals total.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of many researchers, NGOs, state and federal government agencies who make this information possible - Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, EcoHealth Alliance, Georgia DNR, the New England Aquarium, and NOAA among others.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

{Update} AMAPPS Surveys Complete!

We have finished the last of our AMAPPS surveys (Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species) and they were very successful! I am still astounded that we managed to cover so much ocean in a Beaufort 3 or less in the middle of a New England winter! We saw lots of seals and a wide variety of cetaceans (harbor porpoise, common dolphins, white-sided dolphins, Risso's dolphins, pilot whales, minke whales, sei whales, and fin whales).

As we headed back to Cape Cod at the end of the flight, there were some gorgeous patterns in the sand at low tide...

Friday, March 11, 2011

{Press} The Right Whales at the Right Time

"My name is Julianne Kearney and I am part of the EcoHealth Alliance Georgia right whale aerial survey team searching for endangered North Atlantic right whales off the Georgia coast.

On January 16th, as we were flying a survey, I noticed a large dark figure swimming just below the surface of the water. "Turn right!" I called to the pilots, as a right whale appeared from the depths. We circled on the whale for quite some time, trying to photograph the callosity pattern on the whale's head in order to individually identify it. Though the water was very calm, the whale never completely surfaced making it difficult to get a clear shot of the whale's head. However, when looking at the photos, we noticed the tips of the whale's flukes were scarred white.

Scars on large whales often tend to be caused by entanglements in fishing gear or vessel collisions (the two leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales). Seeing scars on right whales is disheartening, but can be helpful to researchers when trying to identify them. This is particularly true when the callosity pattern is difficult to photograph. In the case of this whale, it is possible that the scarring on its tail could have been caused by an encounter with fishing gear. This is an example of why photographing right whales is crucial to studying this endangered species. The photographs allow researchers to monitor the health of individuals and document the frequency of human caused injury.

A day earlier this right whale was sighted and photographed by the EcoHealth Alliance South Carolina right whale aerial survey team. We were able to compare our images to theirs and confirm that this individual was #3670, a five year old female first sighted as a calf with her mother, #2320, off the coast of Florida in 2006. The whale seemed to be making its way south, possibly to take advantage of the warmer waters off the Florida coast.

When considering the immense size of the ocean, along with the distribution, sporadic movements, and number of North Atlantic right whales, the chances of encountering the same whale would seem unlikely. However, on January 29th, I would recognize a familiar face or rather fluke. Instead of searching from the sky, I joined Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) senior biologist Clay George and Dr. Richard Pace from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) aboard the research vessel, R/V Hurricane, for a day of work on the water. Clay and Dr. Pace were in search of mothers and calves along with older right whales in need of being biopsied for genetic sampling. Launching from Fernandina Beach, Florida, we headed out and started searching for right whales on our own and waiting to see if the aerial survey teams had any sightings.

Most of the morning was spent searching, until we received information about a right whale sighting from the Coast Guard. Quickly taking down the coordinates, Clay and Dr. Pace decided to check it out. It was not long until Clay spotted a right whale at the surface. As we slowly approached it started to roll, holding up one of its paddle-shaped flippers high in the air and then smacking it down in the surface of the water. Suddenly another right whale surfaced and the pair moved slowly together, exhaling loudly sounding more like elephants.

Soon after arriving we could hear music blaring from a sport fishing boat. A couple of boats were starting to make their way in our direction, causing us concern. Federal law states that mariners must remain 500 yards away from right whales. This is to prevent accidental collisions and interference with right whale behavior. Researchers work under special permits allowing them to approach closer in order to collect data, such as photographs and biopsies. The chance of coming across the same individual whales can be slim, so researchers use these opportunities to collect as much information as they can. Luckily, the boats did not approach any closer and we were left alone with the whales.

The ocean was calm and all you could hear was the whales exhaling and moving through the water. The whole time I had a camera in hand, capturing both sides of the whales' heads for photo identification. While at the surface, the whales continued to roll on their sides and lift both their heads and tails out of the water. That's when I noticed the familiar white fluke tips. It was #3670! I could not believe it! What were the odds? Here I was, watching a whale I had seen just weeks earlier at an altitude of one thousand feet. The whales seemed curious about the boat and approached very closely, hovering just below the surface. It was both amazing and humbling to be in the presence of such a large and endangered whale.

As the sun began to set, we turned the R/V Hurricane back toward Fernandina Beach. Along the way I thought about #3670 and the rest of her time here in the southeast U.S. When looking along the horizon, I spotted a large warship heading out to sea and the smog of paper mills along the shore. I wondered whether she would survive the migration north, dodging the obstacles humans have put in her way? Her survival is of great importance to the species, as females are an important key to their recovery. If North Atlantic right whales are to recover, it is vital that healthy females give birth to lots of healthy calves. As we continue conducting right whale research, warning vessels of the presence of right whales and educating mariners about how to avoid striking right whales, we can only hope that whales like #3670 will survive long enough to return to the waters off the southeastern U.S. to calve, strengthening the species and escaping extinction."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

{Update} Up to 18 new right whale calves!

I know to some of you 18 may not seem like a lot, but for North Atlantic right whales which are critically endangered and number only around 400 individuals total, it's pretty exciting to see 18 new calves born this year!!!!

Right whales give birth to their calves off the coast from Florida up to South Carolina, and intensive aerial survey efforts carefully document each new mother and calf sighting! This is an incredible collaboration between the New England Aquarium, Florida Fish & Wildlife, Georgia DNR, EcoHealth Alliance, NOAA, and others.