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."

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