Wednesday, May 25, 2011

{Blog} Delaware II Right Whale Cruise

For all the latest updates on the NOAA Delaware II right whale research cruise in the Great South Channel, visit the blog here:

NEFSC Research Cruise Blog

{Press} State lifts right whale advisory in Cape Cod Bay

Cape Cod Times | K.C. MYERS | May 18, 2011

"BOSTON – The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game Wednesday lifted the advisory issued last month that urged boaters to avoid the endangered North Atlantic right whales, which had congregated in large numbers in Cape Cod Bay.

An aerial survey conducted of the bay on May 13 by the Center for Coastal Studies and the Division of Marine Fisheries have revealed that the right whales have left the area.

With the departure of these animals from the bay and nearby Race Point, the Commonwealth is lifting the April 15th advisory to mariners in this area.

Boaters should remain on the lookout for right whales as they may still be present on the backside of Cape Cod and in the Great South Channel.

On April 25, the Right Whale Conservation Program – a joint project between the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies – documented a recording-breaking 124 whales in an aerial survey of the bay and adjacent waters.

Last year, the most right whales seen during a single aerial survey was 70.

Marine officials estimated that over 50 percent of the known population of North Atlantic right whales gathered in the area around Cape Cod to feed.

Right whales are the most endangered large whale in the North Atlantic, with a population of approximately 450 animals

For more information, visit the DMF website at www.mass.gov/marinefisheries."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

{Event} Truro Vineyard’s support for whales no fluke


SUSAN BLOOD PHOTO

"WINE AND WHALES is the name of a celebration May 21 of Truro Vineyard’s new Right White and Right Red wines, with proceeds benefiting the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

"The grape vines at Truro Vineyards are at “bud break,” which means that more than half have popped. You have to look closely for signs of life, but it's definitely there and getting more vibrant every day. After bud break, the vines change quickly. Soon the vineyard will be covered in green shoots, just in time for Truro Vineyard's Wine and Whales celebration on May 21.

If you've never been to Truro Vineyards, this is a perfect time to be introduced. A restored 1830s farmhouse sits on gracious lawns amid sprawling rows of vines. It's another world, from another era – a mere 3,561 miles from the Loire Valley. It's no wonder couples hold their weddings there.

At the Wine and Whales event, Truro Vineyards is launching two new wines, Right White and Right Red. They're using the debut as an opportunity to benefit the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. The afternoon will include complimentary wine from Truro Vineyard, hors d'oeuvres from Blackfish and music by Kami Lyle. There will also be a raffle and auction, all to benefit PCCS.

This year Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies celebrates 35 years of research and education. Over the last year, PCCS researchers spent hundreds of hours in the field studying right whales that visit the cool waters of Cape Cod Bay. According to PCCS, the right whale population in the North Atlantic is approximately 470. Right whales are protected, but they still suffer heavy losses from entanglements and ship strikes. Next week's event includes presentations by the Center's researchers.

Soon traffic will clog the route to Truro, but in May the roads are easily traveled. While it may seem like the end of the earth, Truro is closer than the Loire Valley and absolutely worth the drive. According to their website, Truro Vineyards “pioneered the art of maritime grape growing on the Cape...Our vinifera vineyard produces wine with intense flavor and lush varietal character.” When you see the vineyard, you'll agree it's not just the wine that has varietal character.

Wine and Whales will be held Saturday, May 21, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Truro Vineyards in North Truro. All proceeds support Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Admission is $15 for PCCS members and $20 non-members. Tickets are available at the event or on-line at www.coastalstudies.org"

{Press} Right whales spotted in nearby waters

Nantucket Island Inquirer | Jason Graziadei | May 12, 2011

"Endangered North Atlantic right whales have gathered in the waters east of Nantucket and Cape Cod in record numbers this spring, but have also been spotted in Nantucket Sound, leaving researchers and others puzzled.

The sightings have prompted Coast Guard advisories urging boaters, including the Steamship Authority and Hy-Line ferries, to reduce their speed in the areas where the mammals have been spotted so as not to strike any whales near the surface.

“To have right whales in the Sound is extraordinary,” said Nantucket whale watch captain Blair Perkins. “In my whole lifetime, the only whales I’ve seen in Nantucket Sound were minke whales. These right whales may have been following a ball of bait with the tide and got swept up into the Great Round Shoal Channel, which is the deep channel the fishing boats take out to Georges Bank.”

Nearly hunted to extinction, scientists believe just under 500 North Atlantic right whales remain in the wild. The species is protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Special Act, under which it is listed as “critically endangered.” The right whale population ranges from Florida north to Canada, and typically make their home in the Gulf of Maine, according to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution associate scientist Mark Baumgartner.

While sightings of right whales in Nantucket Sound is not unprecedented, he said they are out of the ordinary and was unsure what food source would bring them into the area.

“It’s not clear whether it’s rare or uncommon, but it certainly is out of the ordinary for where we expect right whales to be,” Baumgartner said. “We typically see them 20 to 60 miles east of Nantucket in May in great numbers.”

The record number of sightings off Provincetown and other areas of New England this year is probably due to their food source, plankton, being carried closer to shore, he added."

Friday, May 13, 2011

{Press} Big Rare Right Whales Return To Feed on Smallest Sea Snacks

Vineyard Gazette Online | Mark Alan Lovewell | May 13, 2011

"This spring endangered Northern Atlantic right whales have been seen and photographed swimming in Vineyard waters. Marine scientists who monitor right whales, considered the rarest among marine mammals, reported seeing 57 whales off Noman’s Land and nearly a dozen south of the Vineyard two weeks ago. More than 200 whales, about half the known population, have been seen since January in Cape Cod Bay.

Crews of observers at the state and federal level, together with those from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, are coordinating efforts to record the seasonal appearance of right whales. There is some optimism as scientists report seeing an improvement in the number of calves.

On a recent Saturday a crew of four, flying in a Cessna Skymaster for the Provincetown center, documented approximately 13 whales less than 20 miles south of the Vineyard. Laura Ganley, flight coordinator for the aerial survey team with the Provincetown center, said during the morning flight they saw a mother and calf pair. They also saw two sei whales. The crew was up in the air for four hours and were pleased with the preliminary data collected. Ms. Ganley said they are still reviewing the photographs and other information to determine the actual number of whales.

A flight across Rhode Island Sound three days later by federal observers was less productive. During that flight just one whale was spotted, suggesting that the whales had already moved eastward.

The largest sighting this season in waters around the Vineyard was recorded on Friday, April 22, by observers from the Northeast Fisheries Center at Woods Hole aboard a Twin Otter plane out of Barnstable Municipal Airport. They flew from west of Noman’s Land to an area off Rhode Island and found several groups of whales in waters west and south of Noman’s Land. “We saw a group of 14, another group of 17, five, eight and 13,” said Christin Khan, an aerial survey biologist for the center. “There were three mother and calf pairs,” she said. The area was about 10 miles west and southwest of Noman’s Land in water about 80 feet deep. That group of observers also documented six sei whales. The area around Noman’s Land, a one-square-mile island southwest of Aquinnah, is popular for lobster fishing during the late spring, summer and fall.

whales
Right whale mother and her calf. Courtesy of NOAA/NEFSC
Right whales are about 50 feet long and weigh about 50 tons each. They are filter feeders and feed on copepods, one of the smallest of food sources in the sea.

“We do see right whales frequently, but it is rare to see them this close to the Vineyard,” Ms. Khan said. “It is certainly encouraging to see them in this area.” There was an unconfirmed report of three right whales spotted in Nantucket Sound.

Right whales were abundant in this area two centuries ago, when they were easily hunted. The New England whaling era was at its peak from the late 1700s into the 1800s. The whales have been protected for many decades, and in the last few years their numbers may have increased slightly. Marine scientists are engaged in ongoing discussions over whether the increase in population, about two per cent per year, is the cause of the whales expanding their territory.

Erin Burke, a protected species specialist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said the whales come each spring in search of food as part of their seasonal migration. They spend the winter in the warmer waters around Florida, and by the time they begin to migrate north they are hungry and in search of food. “They haven’t eaten anything down in the Southeast, Florida, Georgia and Carolinas. There is no food there. They go there to calf. Their first meal may be in our waters,” Ms. Burke said.

When the whales feed they often form concentrated groups in one area, Ms. Burke said. When they make a short-term appearance, she said: “They must have found some food, mowed it down and headed on.” This is what happened a year ago off Rhode Island, to the surprise and delight of scientists.

From an airplane, the sight of a pod of whales feeding is impressive, Ms. Khan said. Describing the April 22 flight, she said: “We saw three mothers and their calves. The entire species has 400 animals. In this past year there were 21 new calves born. We saw three of them,” she said.

The whale experts converse with each other daily. They believe the whales are now gathering at South Channel, southeast of Chatham.

Ms. Burke said that while there has been a slight increase in the population from year to year in the last decade, there is still serious concern about the survival of the species because the numbers are so low. No one wants the right whale to follow in the path of the North Atlantic gray whale, now extinct.

As a result right whales are vigorously protected. Anyone who spots one is required to stay at least 500 yards away. Efforts have been stepped up to reduce ship strikes, a major cause of death for all whales. Unauthorized airplanes flying over whales are required to stay at least 1,000 feet up.

Two years ago Massachusetts, along with other states, adopted new regulations for lobster and other pot fishermen, requiring them to switch from floating to sinking lines for their pots. The rules are designed to reduce the chance that whales will become entangled in the line.

More restrictions are expected in the near future. Bill Adler, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said sometime this summer the federal government is expected come out with an informal proposal to minimize the use of buoy lines for pot fishermen."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

{Update} Accepted a new position!

I accepted a full-time position with NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center!

{Video} North Atlantic Right Whale Protection Program

{Press} High Number of North Atlantic Right Whales Sighted off Rhode Island

Northeast Fisheries Science Center Science Spotlight | April 29, 2011

A NOAA whale research team sighted 57 endangered North Atlantic right whales, including four mother/calf pairs, on April 22 while conducting an aerial survey of Rhode Island Sound. The aerial survey team is based at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. In late April 2010 the team documented a record 102 North Atlantic right whales in these and nearby waters.

“Last year was a record year off Rhode Island, and many right whales were also sighted off Provincetown last week, so we expected to see some whales,” said Peter Duley, whale researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) who was on the aerial team. “The last time we flew in this area, on April 7, we observed eight right whales, including a new mother /calf pair not seen in the southeast calving ground, which is very exciting. We saw that same mother with her new calf again on Friday. It is her fifth known calf.”

Many of the right whales were seen feeding at the surface and were quite easy to spot. “We noticed two or three and then found 17 feeding in the first group we encountered,” said Duley. “We also saw some sei whales as well, which is not unusual since they like the same food.”

“We’re excited that we’ve found a large congregation again this year in Rhode Island Sound and at the same time of year,” said Allison Henry, who was also on the flight. “It appears that, like last year, they are not the same individual whales either, which means that roughly a third of the entire known population has been seen around Cape Cod and southern New England within one week. That’s pretty amazing!”

All of the whales were actively surface feeding, indicating dense patches of copepods, the tiny marine zooplankton on which right whales feed. During this time of year, right whales are migrating through southern New England waters generally headed northward to feed at different times and places throughout the summer.

“It’s wonderful to see so many right whales in the area feeding, and especially to see mother and calf pairs,” added Christin Khan, the third member of the April 22 aerial survey team. “With such a small population the birth of each new calf is one more step on the path to recovery. We are thrilled to discover another new calf in addition to the 20 already confirmed for the season.”

The whales were sighted within waters that are also part of a seasonal management area (SMA) for large whales intended to reduce the risk of harmful collisions. North Atlantic right whales are particularly susceptible to collisions with vessels, causing serious injuries and deaths of the animals. The likelihood of a seriously harmful collision is reduced when vessel speeds are slowed.

Within the area, vessels 65 feet or larger are required to abide by a speed limit of 10 knots or less between November 1 and April 30 of each year. NOAA has announced additional protection in adjacent areas by implementing a short-term management area that mariners are asked to either avoid or, while transiting, to voluntarily reduce speeds to 10 knots or less.

Another source of human-caused injuries and deaths among large whales is entanglement in some kinds of fishing gear. Pot /trap and gillnet fishermen throughout the northeast are required to rig their gear to make it less likely to injure or kill a whale that encounters it, and to mark gear to help identify any entangling line or gear that is recovered from an entangled animal.

NOAA’s Northeast marine mammal aerial survey team completes hundreds of survey flight hours annually over the waters off the northeast and flies much of the year, weather permitting. The April 2011 and 2010 aggregations off Rhode Island rival those documented in December 2008, when the team spotted 44 right whales in Jordan Basin in the central Gulf of Maine where they expected to see no more than a few. That finding challenged accepted thinking about feeding and mating grounds in New England.


# # #

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NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at http://www.noaa.gov or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/noaa.lubchenco.

{Press} Whales Throng New York City Area, Surprising Scientists

National Geographic News | Christine Dell'Amore | May 6, 2011

"It turns out a lot of big whales have a taste for the Big Apple area, including the 100-foot (30-meter) blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, scientists say.

A network of ten underwater sound recorders in place off the length of the south coast of Long Island and throughout New York Harbor (map) between 2008 and 2009 detected a surprising density of ocean giants across an unexpectedly vast area, experts say.

These "open mikes" picked up the ballads of the fin whale, blue whale, humpback whale, minke whale, sei whale, and the rare North Atlantic right whale, said Christopher Clark, Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

The fin, humpback, right, and sei whales are on the U.S. endangered species list, meaning the federal government considers them to be "on the brink of extinction."

(See whale pictures.)

But what amazed the team the most was not the types of whales heard, but the sheer density of animals spread out over the entire study area, said Aaron Rice, science director of the bioacoustics lab.

For one thing, the scientists were struck by the "juxtaposition of having such large charismatic animals that represent ocean biodiversity living right off of the largest city on the Atlantic coast," Rice said

Some of the whales cruised as close as 10 miles (16 kilometers) from New York City, he said.

Clark said, "If you were standing at the top of the Statue of Liberty and looked south or southeast, if you [could see] under the water, there were whales singing under the surface."

In some cases, it was the whales' distance both near and far from shore that surprised the researchers.

For instance, the recorders picked up songs of the North Atlantic right whale 70 miles (113 kilometers) from shore—where the coastal dweller isn't thought to venture.

The acoustic technology, however, does not yet allow the scientists to accurately estimate exactly how many whales they heard.

Science director Rice said, "Now that we know they are there, our next question is how many."

Whales communicate mostly by sound, and each whale species has a distinct call, Rice said. This made it easy for scientists to identify which species had been recorded, he said.

Some of the whale species were migrating through New York on the way to feeding grounds farther north, while others tend to stick around the coast throughout the year, Rice said. Occasionally a whale will wander all the way into a harbor and attract media attention.

Overall, the acoustic monitoring is part of a larger project to understand what sorts of human-made sounds exist along the U.S. East Coast, and how these sounds may impact whales long-term, Rice said. (Related: "Killer Whales Strain to 'Talk' Over Ship Noise?")

Acoustic recording has proven a dependable technique for tracking the mammals—especially because "it's really hard for whales to keep their mouths shut," Clark quipped.

City-whale findings were presented May 4 at a Cornell University press luncheon in New York City."

{Press} Ocean 'opera': 6 whale species heard near NYC

ouramazingplanet.com | May 5, 2011

NEW YORK — At least six different species of whales — among them a blue whale, the largest creature that has ever lived on the planet — have been heard in the waters around New York City, according to researchers who track the gigantic and chatty mammals by listening to their distinctive voices underwater.

"Everywhere we listen, we hear a singing planet," said Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, to a group of reporters this on May 4.

Clark pressed play on his computer, and the small conference room in Manhattan was filled with a haunting, mournful hooting — the call of a blue whale sped up 30 times.

Aaron Rice, science director at the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, said an array of subsea microphones parked along the seafloor off Long Island also picked up sounds from fin whales, a species known to have a local population that seems to stay near New York, along with humpback whales, sei whales, minke whales and critically endangered right whales. The blue whales were the big surprise to scientists, as they usually aren't found so close to shore.

Whales, creatures with tiny eyes, use their distinctive voices to communicate with one another and navigate the world's seas in much the same way bats use sound to navigate through the darkness.

Because whales depend so much upon acoustics, there is grave concern about how noise pollution from ships may be affecting the creatures over time.

Clark said when the recorders were first switched on, he wasn't sure what to expect. "And lo and behold, in the first hour we started listening, we had whales," he said.

And not just any whales — North Atlantic right whales, a species so devastated by whaling in the 19th century that it was thought extinct until the 1950s. Current data indicate there are only about 450 of the creatures left on Earth.

Clark said the project not only revealed the presence of a diversity of whales, but yielded surprising results about where they like to hang out.

It turned out that right whales, a species regulators thought stayed close to shore, actually spent several months in waters about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the coastline.

The researchers gathered their data during a 9-month stretch from 2008 into early 2009, when funding was cut and the project was halted.

Clark said he hopes to revive their work and install recorders near New York City that would relay the songs of whales in real time, via satellite, allowing ordinary New Yorkers to listen in on the massive creatures and their fellow marine animals any time, day or night.

"We have an opera going on out there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Clark said.

An extensive system for whale eavesdropping is in place in Boston, and Clark said he'd like to see something similar in place in New York."

Monday, May 09, 2011

{Press} Endangered whales gathering off Cape Cod in record numbers

Boston.com | Vivian Ho | April 21, 2011

"Whale watchers won’t even have to leave land to see a spectacular sight.

A record number of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have gathered close off the beaches of Provincetown and Truro and is expected to stay there for at least another week, said Charles “Stormy’’ Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

Researchers counted more than 100 whales during an aerial survey Tuesday, with a preliminary count of more than 200 total, a little less than half of the known population. At some points the whales can be seen just a few yards offshore, to a quarter-mile out.

The whales are drawn to the area this time of year by the stores of zooplankton. Mayo said he thinks there are a large number of the whales there now because the area is particularly rich in zooplankton this year.

“We don’t understand that particularly well, but it’s clearly a combination of oceanographic processes and a lot of marine biology,’’ he said. “There are currents that bring the plankton into the area and local currents that cause them to concentrate, and it’s probably an overlapping of a lot of physical processes. Right now, the situation is good for that, just as when you grow plants in your backyard. Some years, there are better situations than others.’’

North Atlantic right whales can weigh up to 90 tons and sport raised, roughened areas on their heads and snouts that make each mammal distinctive, said Mayo.

They live largely in the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia.

Mayo said the center had been spotting the whales in the area since February, but began seeing large numbers around two weeks ago. They appear to be concentrating around Race Point, but also can been seen down to Long Point in Provincetown and inside to Truro.

They now number so many that the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has issued a warning for boaters to steer clear of the animals. Because North Atlantic right whales are endangered — only 450 to 500 exist worldwide — federal law prevents any vessels, other than ones holding research permits, from getting within 500 yards of the creatures.

“The loss of one breeding female could be detrimental to the recovery of the species,’’ said Tanya Grady, a spokeswoman for the Center of Coastal Studies. “They really are teetering on the brink of extinction.’’

Mayo said anyone wanting to see the whales can do so just by walking on the beaches.

“We’re used to seeing right whales,’’ Mayo said. “But even though we do a lot of research on them, it’s a thrilling time. It is a very special occasion being around such an extraordinarily rare animal. The coastal waters off of Massachusetts is providing a home for one of the rarest creatures on earth, and it’s very exciting.’’

Vivian Ho can be reached at vho@globe.com.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

{Press} New Right whale calf spotted in R.I. Sound

Cape Cod Times | Mary Ann Bragg | April 30, 2011

"WOODS HOLE — Whale experts have identified a new North Atlantic right whale calf in Rhode Island Sound during a season of record sightings of the endangered marine mammals in New England waters.

The new calf was first spotted April 7 off Rhode Island, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During a second aerial survey in recent days, researchers confirmed the birth with a second sighting of the mother and new calf.

So far, researchers have counted 20 new calves for this year's calving season, plus the one seen off Rhode Island.

"With such a small population, the birth of each new calf is one more step on the path to recovery," said Christin Khan, a member of the Woods Hole-based federal survey team.

Twenty calves are slightly above average for a season, Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press in late March. In 2010, 19 right whale calves were reported off the U.S. coast, the AP reported.

North Atlantic right whales calve in the warm, shallow waters off Georgia and Florida, then move northward to feed throughout the spring and summer.

The North Atlantic right whale population totals about 450 animals, according to the New England Aquarium in Boston."

{Press} Saving the Seas: Smarter Hooks and Nets

www.popsci.com | Josh Dean | May 2, 2011

"Last year, fish consumption reached a global annual average of 37.5 pounds per person. Meanwhile, cod and bluefin-tuna populations have collapsed, and animals ranging from whales to turtles have been added to the Endangered Species Act. Our voracious appetite isn’t the only problem. Fishermen catch a lot of things unintentionally, in what Tim Werner, director of the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Engineering program, calls the “collateral damage” of commercial fishing: bycatch.

Compared with the more intractable problem of overfishing, technological solutions to bycatch abound.Bycatch ensnares coral, sponges, starfish, sharks, whales, turtles and even birds. It is “one of the more immediate threats that marine diversity faces,” Werner says. It has led to the assumed extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, has nearly wiped out the Gulf of California’s vaquita porpoise (fewer than 200 remain), and threatens the survival of the North American right whale (400 remain) and the short-tailed albatross. A United Nations report estimates bycatch at 7.5 million tons a year, or 5 percent of the total commercial-fishing haul. Because most available data is self-reported, Werner says that the U.N.’s numbers “woefully underestimate” the problem. A more representative statistic, he says, comes from Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries, some of which dredge up to five pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp.

The good news is that compared with the more intractable problem of overfishing, technological solutions to reduce bycatch abound. Shrimp companies, for example, have begun using “turtle-excluding devices,” metal grates at the front of a trawl net that let the shrimp in and keep the turtles out. Fishermen who use long subsurface “gillnets” have begun to deter porpoises by equipping these nets with battery-powered acoustic “pingers.” In the best cases, pingers have reduced casualties from 25 porpoises per net to one. At Florida Atlantic University, associate professor Stephen Kajiura is trying to protect sharks by affixing rare-earth elements to the lines that fishermen use to catch tuna. The metals react with seawater to create an electromagnetic field that repels sharks (as well as skates and rays).

Turtle Filter: "Turtle-excluding devices" reduce the number of turtles caught in trawl nets by 97 percent, while only minimally reducing the shrimp catch. Dan Foster
The most effective solutions will be those that are cheap and easy to implement. Jeffry Fasick, an assistant professor at Kean University, is studying the vision of the North Atlantic right whale in an effort to develop brightly colored ropes that the animals can see and avoid. The quintessential cheap-and-easy fix, however, may be the “weak hook,” thinner hooks that bend under the weight of animals (bluefins, sharks, whales) larger than the yellowfin tuna they’re designed to catch. In a field test, NOAA found that weak hooks reduced bycatch of endangered bluefin tuna by 56 percent—results significant enough that the agency may soon mandate weak hooks in bluefin-tuna territory."

{Press} Why Do Right Whales Linger In The Gulf Of Maine

www.redorbit.com | April 27, 2011

"As they might with most endangered animals, scientists consider the whereabouts and activities of right whales extremely important. “It is helpful to know where they go, why they go there and what they do when they’re there,” says Mark F. Baumgartner of the biology department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Baumgartner and his colleagues studied the behavior of right whales and sei whales—both endangered species of baleen whales—in the waters of the Gulf of Maine to the east of Nantucket. They found that the location, the length of stay, and perhaps the very abundance of the whales may be dependent on an interesting vertical migration pattern by the copepods on which the whales feed. It seems to be a case, he said, of “how the behavior of the prey influences the behavior of the whales.”

The algae-eating copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, appears to migrate up and down in the water column to avoid being eaten by predators such as herring and sand lance. Since these fish need to see their prey in order to feed, copepods often remain at depths where sunlight will not penetrate during the daytime. Under cover of night, they leave this deep, dark refuge, swim to the surface, and feed on algae in relative safety.

In turn, this pattern, the scientists report in a recent issue of the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, has a “dramatic impact” on the behavior and whereabouts of the whales. They found that right whales, which are capable of feeding at depths of 450 to 600 feet below the surface, continued to stay in the area and feed on copepods deep in the water column during the day. The sei whales, on the other hand, were “significantly less abundant” when the copepods displayed vertical migration. Unlike the right whales, the sei whales probably cannot feed at depth during the day, so they may leave the area in search of better feeding conditions elsewhere.

For reasons not well understood, the critically endangered right whale is vulnerable to being hit by ships while at the surface. Baumgartner points out that nighttime may prove particularly dangerous for right whales as they feed on copepods that have migrated to the surface, yet captains piloting ships in the dark have no way to see and avoid the whales.

“Our study also helps us understand why right whales stick around in this area, from about mid April to mid June,” Baumgartner said. Because of their ability to feed below the surface, “they are able to out-compete the herring” for food, he said.

It had been thought that the recovery of herring stocks in the last decade might further threaten the right whale by depleting its food supply, Baumgartner said. But these latest observations—along with a rise in the North Atlantic right whale population from roughly 300 to 400 since 1999—suggest that herring recovery does not threaten the right whale population, he said.

At the same time, the herring and sand lance, by inducing the copepods’ vertical migration behavior, “are likely influencing the distribution and abundance of sei whales” in that area, the researchers report. However, since the sei whale population numbers in the thousands, Baumgartner said their tendency to go elsewhere to look for food is not as great a concern as it would be for the right whale.

“The good news is that the recovery of herring stocks is not going to be a problem for the right whale population,” Baumgartner said. “The bad news is that if the right whales are feeding at the surface at night, they are at greater risk for ship strikes than we had thought earlier.”

The study was conducted during the spring seasons of 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Baumgartner was joined in the study by Nadine S.J. Lysiak of WHOI and researchers from UMass Boston and the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole.

Funding was provided by NOAA, the Office of Naval Research, the WHOI Ocean Life Institute, and the WHOI John E. and Anne W. Sawyer Endowed Fund."

{Press} Rare Right Whales Flock to Cape Cod

www.newser.com | Polly Davis Doig | April 24, 2011

"There are only 473 North Atlantic right whales on the planet, but almost half of them have been spotted gorging themselves on an unusual feast off the coast of Cape Cod this year. "The current must be piling the plankton up," a scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies tells ABC News. "[There's] a patch of food, of unbelievable richness that's just stretching right along this edge. All these whales have their mouths open."

The right whale was hunted so mercilessly that only 100 remained when their slaughter was outlawed in 1935; the creatures, known as slow moving and gentle, have made a slow rebound since then. Scientists and whale watchers alike are thrilled; the whales are coming in close enough that observers can spot their distinctive bumpy heads from shore. "They're so big and magnificent, you just see them and ... it gives you chills," says a whale enthusiast. "They're amazing.""