Our seventh year of North Atlantic right whale research in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is underway!

Two researchers from our right whale team (Kelsey + Amy!) are currently in Canada heading out to sea aboard the vessel Jean-Denis Martin. Their research will examine all aspects of this incredibly important right whale habitat, including photo identifications, health and behavioral assessments, biopsy and fecal sampling, plankton and oceanographic sampling, and drone imagery.

For the next two weeks, Kelsey and Amy will be living on this crab vessel and sending us occasional updates on their research, which will be updated below!

Small Boat Cruise

Updated August 3, 2022

 

The team aboard “Charlie.”

For the two weeks between the larger Jean-Denis Martin (JDM) cruises, a few of us from the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI) have joined forces on a small boat to continue right whale-targeted surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with a focus on gathering more biopsy samples (skin and blubber). The boat we use for surveys is a 30-foot rigid-hull inflatable, affectionately nicknamed “Charlie.”

There are pros and cons to using a smaller boat. Pros: You can go faster and have more maneuverability around whales. Cons: You can’t handle higher sea states, and you can’t stay out overnight. Because the majority of right whales are still aggregating farther offshore in Bradelle Valley (~80 nautical miles), as opposed to the closer Shediac Valley (~40 nautical miles), the small boat can feel limiting.   

Despite these setbacks, we have been able to conduct three surveys in the Baie des Chaleurs and Shediac Valley so far. We have reported a whopping 10 sets of lost crab gear to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to recover. We’ve also photographed 14 individual right whales, eight of which we did not see during the previous two weeks on the JDM. Interesting! 

Snow Cone (Catalog #3560) with her entanglement visible.
Snow Cone (Catalog #3560) with her entanglement visible.

One of these “new” whales was “Snow Cone” (Catalog #3560), the well-documented 17-year-old female who made headlines over the winter for giving birth while being entangled. She was last seen with her months-old calf in Cape Cod Bay in April. When we photographed her on July 23, she was still entangled and hanging out with Catalog #4190 (an 11-year-old female). Unfortunately, we did not see her calf. Right now, we can’t say for sure what happened to Snow Cone’s calf, but researchers on and above the water will continue to keep an eye out in the hopes of seeing them together.

To learn more about Snow Cone’s plight, read our blog on her entanglement history and stay tuned for updates from the August cruise.   

Previous updates

Cruise 1: July, Part 2

Updated July 27, 2022
Slalom’s (#1245) calf breaching.
Slalom’s (Catalog #1245) calf breaching.

In the second half of the cruise, we logged over five days at sea–even though conditions continued to be rough. On the final day offshore, we found seven right whales near an area off of Prince Edward Island that’s closed to fishing. To our knowledge, no right whales have ever been sighted in this closed area–so it was exciting to see them here! We also spotted three mother-calf pairs during the cruise: “Silt” (Catalog #1817), “Slalom” (Catalog #1245), and Catalog #4180. Silt’s calf put on a show for everyone at sunset, breaching numerous times.  

This time, we photographed 67 individual right whales and saw a lot of familiar faces, including two sponsorship whales, “Aphrodite” (Catalog #1701) and “Manta” (Catalog #1507). Our colleagues from the University of New Brunswick also conducted a handful of drone flights and did two day/night oceanographic sampling.

 

Processing skin biopsy samples on board.

 

Processing biopsy samples with Moira Brown (right), a scientist emeritus at the Aquarium and senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute.

During cruises, we collect biopsy and poop samples from whales we spot better to understand the health and genetics of individual right whales. On this cruise, we collected biopsy samples from EG #3904 (Champagne, a 13-year-old female), EG #4180 (a whale that had never been biopsy sampled!) and her calf, and collected poop samples from four different whales. 

Processing these samples is work that can start right on the ship. To process a skin biopsy sample, the skin is cut into small pieces and then placed in a small vial of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) for storage until it makes its way to the genetics lab at St. Mary’s University.

Catalog #4180 in rough seas

A major highlight of this cruise came on our last day at sea when we were able to (finally) biopsy sample Catalog #4180 and her 2022 calf. In rough seas, no less! This was exciting for several reasons. Firstly, the calf was one of only two calves that hadn’t been sampled in the calving grounds. And secondly, mom (Catalog #4180) has been a major genetic mystery to us. She first showed up in 2010 as a juvenile, age unknown. We only learned she was female in 2019 when she was seen with a calf. After evading sampling for 12 years, we finally got a skin sample from her. With a small piece of skin, we can learn a lot about her genetics, including who her mother is, which in turn will help us deduce her age.

Overall, this was a successful cruise! Stay tuned for updates on some of the small boat work that’ll take place before the next cruise of the season.  

Cruise 1: July, Part 1

Updated July 20, 2022
Catalog #3942 during a close approach for biopsy sampling.

After a couple of days of prep at the dock, we were ready for the first cruise! We headed offshore for three days in search of right whales, which Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) aerial survey teams spotted hanging out in the middle of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Normally at this time of year, right whales are on the western side of the Gulf—that meant a longer trip, and unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative.  

Even though conditions weren’t ideal, we made the most of it. We photographed 28 individual right whales; biopsy darted Catalog #3942, a 13-year-old female right whale; re-sighted and captured drone imagery of “Meridian” (Catalog #1403), a known entangled whale; and reported lost crab fishing gear to the DFO.  

Though we had to end this cruise early because of the stormy weather, snacking on some peanut butter pretzels helped during the long ride back through rough seas. Plus, we were rewarded with one amazing rainbow.  

Stay tuned for more from the right whale team’s first cruise! 

This research is done in collaboration with the University of New Brunswick and the Canadian Whale Institute, and is done in partnership with the Island Foundation and Irving Oil.

All research is conducted under DFO SARA permit.