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Some unusual whale sightings and a reminder of why we do what we do

My visit to the WDC North America office this past week was a tangible reminder of why Whale and Dolphin Conservation exists as an organization and how important it is for us to continue our efforts to protect whales and dolphins.  

North Atlantic right whale mother and calf July 2015 PlymouthAn opportunity to take a trip out to sea last Thursday morning in hopes of seeing humpback whales 15 miles off the coast started with a surprise sighting of a mother and calf North Atlantic right whale only four miles from the shores of Plymouth.  

WDC has been operating from our Plymouth office for nearly ten years and is staffed by a dedicated team of colleagues who it was my privilege to work with this last week. It is easy to forget that this is a relatively small office when one contemplates how much work is achieved here on the east coast of the United States.

The NA team observing a pair of North Atlantic right whales

While it would not necessarily be unusual to see North Atlantic right whales in this area during April, this critically endangered species typically moves north to Canadian waters during the summer months.  Our sighting of this mother and calf pair is not only the only confirmed sighting of these whales in the feeding area to date, but was also to lead to the U.S. Coast Guard issuing a notice of broadcast to mariners reducing the risk of these whales being struck by passing vessels.  The notice reminds boaters to maintain the required 500 yard distance from the pair and asks vessels to slow down in the vicinity of the whales.

Seeing this mother and calf pair swimming close to shore near fishing gear, and barely visible at the surface as they did so, made it clear as to why these whales are so vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglements and why WDC’s work to protect these whales is one of the reasons they do have a chance to recover.  

WDC was instrumental in getting a ship strike speed rule implemented as well as regulations to modify fishing gear to reduce the risk of the whales becoming entangled. However, this sighting comes on the heels of the reports of three NA right whales deaths and at least one entanglement in Canadian waters this past month. Our work to save these whales is not yet done.  

Breaching humpbackOur trip that day also led us to some spectacular humpback behaviors with some individuals apparently trying to outdo each other for the most dramatic show.

Friday morning brought a call from the Massachusetts Natural Resource office to respond to something dead on Plymouth’s Long Beach. Such calls are not always unexpected for our WDC NA staff.  

As trained responders for the New England Aquarium’s Stranding Rescue Program, WDC staff often receive calls about stranded seals, whales, dolphins, and even sharks. However, the sighting on this morning was newsworthy.

Stranded Sowerby's beaked whale _Plymouth July 2015When WDC reported the sighting of a stranded beaked whale to the New England Aquarium, immediate efforts were made to recover the carcass of this whale for necropsy (animal autopsy) to hopefully learn, not only why it died, but what it was. Very little is known about these mysterious whales and the best current guess is that this freshly dead female is a Sowerby’s Beaked Whale. These whales are typically a deep water whale found off the continental shelf (over 100 miles from the coast of Plymouth) and the first of this would be the first confirmed sighting of this species in this area.  WDC had responded to a similar incident in Scotland, in the UK, in June 2015.

WDC staff secured the whale by anchor to allow it to be floated at high tide and then coordinated with the Massachusetts Resource and Plymouth Harbormaster officers to tow the carcass to shore, enabling New England Aquarium biologists to move it to their facility for examination.  And whilst the cause of death remains under investigation, this is a species that is particularly susceptible to ocean noise.

Sowerby's beaked whale stranding July 2015 PlymouthWhatever the reason for this individual being stranded, this tragic incident is a tangible reminder of the importance of WDC’s involvement as part of a coalition of groups working to stop seismic testing along the U.S. east coast; saving the whales most at risk, those that we don’t see and still know so little about.  

I have known for some time that, as a front-line field office, the work from WDC’s North America is often unpredictable and sometimes requires immediate response to emerging situations. During this visit, despite my well earned reputation for being one of the most unsuccessful whale watchers of all time, I was able to experience these constant demands on this small team, first-hand.  

NA team out on whale survey July 2015As the North American office of WDC is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I am incredibly proud to realize that we have accomplished so much, but still have more to do over the next 10 years. 

This is only possible with your continued support.  Thank you for what you have already contributed and for what you will do to make our work possible.  

Images of stranded whales were obtained under the authorization of New England Aquarium’s permit issued by NOAA as part of its Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.  It is illegal to intentionally approach a North Atlantic right whale within 500 yards without a permit.  Images of whales were obtained following NOAA’s Northeast Regional Whale Watching Guidelines.