Right Whale Aerial Surveys

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What's it like to be an aerial survey observer?

It's 6am and still dark outside. You awake to the sound of the telephone; the winds have died down and the water will be calm ‑ perfect conditions for a right whale aerial survey flight. You jump into action. The air is crisp and cold, and you can see your breath as you load the photographic gear into the car and head to Otis Air Force Base. In the meeting room you are met by the pilots, Phil and Kristie, bright‑eyed and ready to go; the Twin Otter is fueled and the flight plan filed. You quickly climb into NOAA57, clenching and unclenching your fists to keep the blood flowing to warm your fingers. You crouch in front of the recorder's seat setting up the two computers; one records sea surface temperature from a sensing device on the underbelly of the plane, and the other maintains a GPS track of the flight, as well as accepting entries for each animal sighting, ship sighting, and environmental change.

As Phil and Kristie taxi the Otter out to the runway, the computers come online and your fingers begin to thaw as you type in statistics for today's flight. Today you are heading to fly a focused survey in the Great South Channel Critical Habitat, east of Cape Cod Massachusetts Right whales have been known to occupy this area during the spring months due to large concentrations of their prey, Calanus finmarchicus. However, similar to much of this population's preferred habitat, including both the calving grounds off the southeastern US and the Bay of Fundy in Canada, this area of the Great South Channel lies very close to high‑traffic commercial shipping lanes. Large vessels pose a significant risk to the slow‑moving right whale, and with this population in the precarious situation that it is, each individual whale can make a difference to the survival of the species. The Western North Atlantic Right Whale population has been holding steady at approximately 300 individuals, making it one of the most critically endangered of the great whales. And despite the relatively high numbers of calves born in the past two years (31 in 2001 and 21 in 2002), the population's growth rate remains in question.

Locations of whales you see today will be immediately reported to the Sighting Advisory System, which alerts the Coast Guard as well as commercial shipping traffic to the whereabouts of right whale concentrations. Cautionary broadcasts encourage mariners to be on the lookout for right whales so as to avoid shipstrikes. In addition, if you find a group of right whales, the surrounding area can be closed to certain types of fishing under the new Dynamic Area Management protocols. In 2002 two of these closures were put into effect. The group sizes of whales in the Great South Channel this spring were the biggest we have seen in recent history, and one of these management closures helped to protect an aggregation of nearly 70 right whales.

Today's flight to a target habitat area, however, is not the only type of survey flown. Much of the focus now is on broadscale survey effort: systematically flying tracklines that cover all US waters from Long Island NY to the northern reaches of Maine Each year, the Twin Otter flies over 15,000 trackline miles in search of right whales, helping track the whales both inside areas known to be critical habitat, as well as finding other areas that the whales inhabit more intermittently. These broadscale surveys allow us to scientifically examine the population's distribution, and will assist in designating new areas of protected habitat. This year produced more reported entangled right whales than in any previous year, so it is critical to discover additional high‑use areas in order to evaluate the risk from human interaction.

Is everyone buckled in? As the plane takes off, you see the beautiful New England fall colors unfold below you on the transit out to the ocean. Another NOAA survey flight begins.

Contact person: Tim.Cole@noaa.gov

**All photos are the property NOAA Fisheries.


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(File Modified Nov. 24 2004)