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November 25, 2013
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Right Whale Roller Coaster

How Many Will We See This Season, and Where?

As survey flights resume for the 2013-2014 North Atlantic right whale season, members of the aerial survey team at the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) wonder what this survey season will bring. More right whale sightings than last year, or fewer? And where?

"Something has definitely changed," said Tim Cole, a member of the aerial team. "There has been a dramatic shift in the numbers of right whales we are seeing. This has happened before, about 15 years ago, but the recent change is still striking. Everyone is asking "Where did the right whales go?"

A look at the sightings data from the past two seasons shows the rollercoaster of right whale sightings Cole is referring to. With nearly the same number of surveys and area covered in the same time frame, it is hard to explain what is going on.

Using one of NOAA's DHC-6 Twin Otter turboprop aircraft, the team conducted aerial surveys for North Atlantic right whales from November 2012 through July 2013. Only 50 right whale sightings were made, including repeated sightings of individual animals. The maximum number of whales sighted in a group or aggregation was 6. Just a year earlier, between November 2011 and July 2012, the survey team recorded 419 right whale sightings, including repeats of individuals, with a maximum aggregation size of 36.

The number of surveys and overall survey effort between the past two years were nearly identical, so the difference in sightings between one year and the next is significant, said Cole. "We cover a broad region, over 70,000 square nautical miles, but we focus on specific areas where right whales are most likely to be found. In November, December, and early January, sightings often occur in the central Gulf of Maine. During April through July, we find many right whales in the Great South Channel and in the southern Gulf of Maine."

Why the numbers differ so much from year to year is likely due to many factors. Ocean conditions in the region are changing, which may be affecting the amount and location of food for the whales. New technologies using passive acoustics to track whales and their prey are helping to fill the gaps, but additional work is needed.

There is some good news for the current 2013-2014 right whale sighting season. NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to use the air station as a base for the Twin Otter when operating in New England. The MOU will remain in effect through September 2016.

Lt. David Gothan, a Twin Otter pilot and aircraft commander, says the Air Station provides an ideal location for the aircraft, which is dedicated to the NEFSC's right whale surveys in New England. NOAA has a total of four Twin Otters that support a variety of projects nationwide from their home base at AOC, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fl. Crews and aircraft are rotated as needed. Gothan and co-pilot Lt.j.g. Mike Hirsch rotate onto the right whale project with other pilots for three to four-week stints.

Gothan, who has been a pilot for 20 years, said the Twin Otter is well-suited for marine mammal work like the surveys. "The Twin Otter is a slow-flying aircraft, very stable at the air speeds needed for marine mammal observation. The aircraft flies at an altitude of 750 feet and air speed of 100 knots, and is equipped with bubble windows for observation. Two observers and a data recorder make up the scientific crew on each flight. Our job is to get the researchers out where they need to be to perform their mission. Weather is a big factor."

Cole says the location at the Air Station is close to the researchers at the Woods Hole Laboratory, and will result in cost savings for the program. With limited funds, it is important to optimize when to fly and in what areas, and having the Twin Otter nearby makes rapid response much easier.

The NEFSC aerial team typically conducts right whale surveys several times a week, depending on visibility and winds. The first flight of the 2013-2014 right whale survey season took place on November 2. Since then, the team has observed only 1 right whale, but has seen dozens of fin whales, pilot whales, humpback whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoise, a basking shark, a sei whale, and a number of ocean sunfish.

"We've had some record-high sightings in recent years, especially in the Gulf of Maine, but we've also had some years where we have seen very few right whales, such as occurred this past year," Cole said. "We are hoping to see many more right whales in the coming months."

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