Posted on November 20, 2023
On 16 November 2023, the weather lined up perfectly for HDR Inc. to go out in their small boat for some large whale survey work under the Mid-Atlantic Nearshore and Mid-shelf Baleen Whale Monitoring Project.
The first whale sighted was a single juvenile humpback, new to our local catalog. Images were collected for photo ID and then the team moved on and found a group of five whales spread out over a couple kilometers. They were engaged in bubble net feeding a couple miles from where the Virginia menhaden fleet was fishing. All individuals were visitors that HDR has seen in the past –HDRVAMn017, seen once back in 2015; HDRVAMn0220, first sighted by HDR in 2021 and known as “Daybreak” in the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale catalog coordinated by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA; HDRVAMn225, also seen in 2021 and known as “Silkworm” in the Gulf of Maine catalog; and HDRVAMn261, first seen in 2022.
Perhaps most exciting was HDRVAMn005 – “Mojo”; first seen by HDR back in 2014 and then again in 2015, 2016, and sat tagged in 2017. “Mojo” was first documented in Virginia waters by other researchers in 2011 and received its name from once having a fishing lure embedded in its back during its time here in Virginia. It is known in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog housed at Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic as NAHWC #7621 and is known to feed around Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, and has been observed as far south as the Dominican Republic.
Typically, the humpback whales seen in nearshore Virginia waters are younger animals (see Swingle et al. 1993), however this mid-shelf region might be a stopover point for sexually mature animals, such as Mojo, as they make their way south to the breeding grounds.
Given the interesting behavior of the six humpback whales, the field team tried to approach several to deploy a suction cup CATS tag but none were allowing close enough approach. They were successful, however, in launching a drone to collect other valuable information such as body measurements and health condition, as well as fantastic documentation of bubble net feeding.