A Q+A with North Atlantic right whale researcher Monica Zani


She's the first person to see the rarest whale in the world give birth. The happy event happened when New England Aquarium right whale researcher Monica Zani was on a routine tracking mission over the Georgia and Florida coast. Zani’s observation was recently published in the scientific journal Aquatic Mammals. Here, she describes the birthing event and what it means for the North Atlantic right whale conservation efforts. Monica also sheds light on Catspaw, the mother she observed. Catspaw and her calves are among the many whales being tracked and monitored by the New England Aquarium's 28-year-old North Atlantic Right Whale Research Program.

How long have you been involved with the North Atlantic Right Whale Program at the New England Aquarium?

In a way it’s like I’ve grown up at the Aquarium. I was 17 when I started here with internships and volunteer positions working with animals and doing rescue and rehabilitation. I also used to work as a whale watch naturalist and I earned my captain’s license when I was 22 so I could run boats. For a while I was a naturalist for a program called Science at Sea and a captain on the aquarium’s Whale Watch boat. In 2000 I got involved with the Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Program. My time here has really allowed me to be involved in many aspects of the aquarium from working with school age kids to stranded marine mammals. The work here is really great to see, and I feel pretty fortunate.

Researchers Monica Zani and Jessica Taylor

on a right whale tracking mission


What kind of aerial tracking does the Aquarium research team participate in?

Every year the Aquarium sends a team of researchers to the critical right whale habitat in the southeastern United States, off Fernandina Beach, FL. It’s part of an Early Warning System (EWS) program designed to prevent  ship strikes, which are the number one killer of right whales. That area along the coast of Georgia and Florida is the only known  right whale calving ground, but there are also several major shipping channels in the area, including two that serve military bases.

What is it like to participate in an aerial tracking mission?

A plane used iin Aerial tracking missions.

We are in a small plane. There are two pilots in front and two researchers/observers in back. We wear a lot of safety gear, and I’ll admit it’s uncomfortable. The two observers stare out their window the whole time. You’re not allowed to look away from the window on these flights because it only takes a second and you could miss a whale. You have to stare out the window with your search image in mind. You’re very focused. We try to keep our eyes out 2 miles on the horizon, looking for the slightest disturbance or white cap. When we see something we use a GPS and a data logging system to automatically upload the location to the database. The whale’s location is sent in near real time to the extensive EWS network that alerts ships in the area to right whale locations so the captains can avoid those areas. Once the position is logged, the pilots circle the whale and the person on the right becomes the photographer, and we document the sighting for the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog that the New England Aquarium curates.

What happened on the day you witnessed the birth?

We had already worked one whale and we were back on survey effort  when I saw something. I can’t say exactly what, but we flew toward it at an altitude of 1,000 feet. When we did the first pass to get the GPS position we pretty much saw this:

Figure 1. Blood was observed shortly after the survey team's arrival on site.

I was very hesitant at first. “Did anyone else see that red in the water,” I asked. The pilot said he thought he saw blood too, but we were all thinking “No, it couldn’t have been blood.” The computer logged the exact position and the pilot started to circle. On the second pass we were circling and we saw this:

Figure 2. The right whale was documented thrashing at the surface; blood is apparent in the surrounding water.

My first instinct was some type of injury, most likely from some sort of vessel. We see a lot of  vessel traffic in the critical habitat, everything from large commercial ships and naval warship and nuclear submarines to commercial fishing boats, casino boats and private recreational boats  and it makes us nervous. We have even had problems with kayakers paddling out to right whales. On this day we had seen a vessel to the north heading towards the whales location but after we got a better look noticed the vessel would be clear of the whale’s location. Very often during our surveys we will see vessels that appear to be heading right for whales and we will warn them of a right whale location. 

I was speechless and I felt helpless being 1,000 feet above an endangered animal that appeared to be hurt or in danger. We circled for 3 minutes and 37 seconds, which seemed like such a long time to watch her creating all this whitewater and blood. At no point did I think she was giving birth. Unfortunately, working with right whales  you see a lot of ship strikes, you see a lot of entanglements, you see a lot of dead whales. Then we saw the calf on her back:

Figure 4. The right whale calf rolled off the mother and back into the water.

And that was the first time we knew what we were witnessing. It all happened so fast. In retrospect, I wish I had taken out the video camera, but it was so surreal. The best part was sharing it. Everyone in our office has spent so long studying these animals, and everyone who goes down to the calving areas is hoping to see a birth.

How does this observation advance the study of North Atlantic right whales?

We’ve always known this area was the calving ground, but it’s nice to have actual documentation of a birth event in the critical habitat. In addition, there were no other whales in the area when the birth occurred. That means that when right whales give birth they do it on their own (at least in this case)

New England Aquarium right whale researcher

Monica Zani spots a right whale calf

What questions does this event raise?

Since the water was so dark and turbid, we never saw visible signs of a placenta. That’s something I am asked all the time. We also never saw any signs of sharks around, which is something that people want to know as well.

Are there other right whale behaviors that have yet to be observed?

We can only observe the whales’ behavior when they are at the surface, and whales are only on the surface for a small fraction of their life. We spend a lot of time trying to understand their movements both above and below the surface of the water to help with the timing of getting photographs and to figure out how they interact with fishing gear and what are the factors contributing to ship collisions. The more we can learn about right whales the more we can help protect them. For example, right whales have a huge problem with entanglement in fishing gear, in particular the lines that connect surface buoys with pots and the lines that connect the pots in a trawl so both horizontal and vertical lines can cause a problem for large whales

Are there right whale behaviors that researchers don’t understand?

Yes, for example we see whales in large courtship groups that involve anywhere from a few to several dozen right whales.  We think that these groups are an important part of the their social structure, but don’t think they lead to conception because they occur all year long and most right whale births are seen in December through February.

How is it that right whales live so close to shore and are so closely monitored, but you were the first person to see a birthing event?

We are only out looking for right whales during daylight hours and good sighting conditions, so it is not surprising that this is the first and so far the only right whale birth observed.  There are several other large whale species where births have never been seen, this was a rare and special event for us to see. Our main goal in the southeast is to find and report positions, our job is to protect whales from shipstrikes.  However,  because we do spend a lot of time in other habitats such as the Bay of Fundy we are able to collect more behavioral data.  We also curate the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, so by photographing right whales we can individually identify them.  This is why we circle over the top of the top of the whale, to obtain photographs and that’s why this event was noticed