Right Whale Aerial Surveys

NOAA 57, EG Twin Otter aircraft
NOAA 57, EG Twin Otter

Our new photo data collection system.

Much of the North Atlantic Right Whale habitat is many miles offshore, and often unreachable by boat. Taking identification photos of the whales is therefore an important part of our survey task. Many of the individuals we identify have never been captured on film by any of the boat-based surveys in other areas, such as the Bay of Fundy or Cape Cod Bay. In the 2003 field season we have begun using an all-digital setup. Our Canon 1-D digital camera is linked via a firewire connection to our laptop. This allows us to immediately view the photo on a larger screen than that of the camera, and evaluate whether we need another pass over the whale to obtain a good identification shot.

Right whales have unique white patterns on their heads called callosities. Callosities are patches of rough, raised skin that are infested with whale lice called cyamids. We use these patterns to tell individual whales apart.


Right Whale photo showing callosities

Right Whale photo showing callosities

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Our upcoming photogrammetry project.

This August, a project using a technique called photogrammetry will take place in the Bay of Fundy Roseway Basin, and Browns Bank. Photogrammetry is a process by which measurements of objects in photographs can be calculated when you know the precise distance the object was from the camera when the photograph was taken. We plan to calculate measurements of length and girth to assess overall health of right whales in these highly populated areas. Our camera will be mounted in the belly of the aircraft, enabling us to obtain a photograph of the animal from directly overhead, and a radar altimeter will give us an exact altitude, or distance from the whale. In addition, we will have a video camera mounted in the nose of the aircraft. This will link to a live video monitor in the cockpit, to assist the pilots in making a direct pass over the whale.

We also hope to expand this method to be used during our regular aerial survey flights. Photographs taken from directly overhead show a more complete picture of callosity patterns and scars on both sides of the animal's head, as opposed to photos taken from one side during a bank as the plane is circling. Photographing during direct passes over the animal also increases safety during the flight by eliminating the need to bank the aircraft.

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What if there's bad weather?

We fly every day we can, but if the weather is very windy offshore, it's difficult to spot whales among all the whitecaps and waves on the ocean. But plenty of office projects keep us busy on land. In addition to processing and editing all our flight data, we are also working on photo analyses, analyses of whale distribution and ship sightings using GIS, and continual development and improvement of our experimental techniques using new equipment.

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Sending right whale alerts

We report all our right whale sightings through the Sighting Advisory System. Our sightings, as well as those from other research groups, the Coast Guard, NOAA ships, commercial vessels, and the general public, are sent via email, fax, NAVTEX, and a Broadcast Notice to Mariners.

Click here to link to the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System website and see the latest reported right whale sightings in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

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Did you see a whale?

If you think you may have seen a right whale, call the Right Whale Sighting Advisory Alert Pager at 978-585-8473. Leave a voice message with the number of whales, the location of the sighting, your name, a phone number, and a description of the animals you saw. Someone from our team will call you back to talk with you about your sighting. Click here to learn about the distinguishing characteristics of right whales.

right whale spouting water (blow)

Right whales have a very distinctive v-shaped blow.


**All photos are the property NOAA Fisheries.

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(File Modified Jun. 08 2007)