Posted on November 20, 2023
As hard as it is for us to get used to colder temperatures here in the Hampton Roads area, winter is still very exciting since it brings baleen whale visitors into Mid-Atlantic waters! Some whales are just passing through, possibly stopping for a quick bite to eat on their way to more southern breeding grounds, while others may spend weeks or even months in the area. The U.S. Navy Marine Species Monitoring Program has several ongoing projects studying exactly what whales are doing in our area.
For starters, we use the sounds that whales make to communicate with each other to determine their presence. Moored passive acoustic buoys capable of detecting and classifying the calls of several baleen whale species in near-real time are deployed in strategic locations—and even go so far as to send us email and text messages when they think a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale has been detected. Our most recent buoy deployment is located off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia, just outside the existing Chesapeake Bay Seasonal Management Area. Previously we were monitoring a location near Cape Hatteras, NC.
Even before the “official” right whale migration season started, marked by the start of mandatory seasonal speed restrictions to help reduce the risk of vessel strikes, our buoy had detected right whales off Virginia. On 11 November, our first North Atlantic right whale “upcalls” were detected.
This acoustic detection triggered a voluntary ship speed reduction area called a “slow zone”. On 15 November, more right whale upcalls were detected, which not only extended the duration of the slow zone but lined up with a weather window that allowed HDR Inc. to get on the water in a small vessel in order to conduct visual observations and possibly deploy monitoring tags. Our protocols for permitted right whale tagging are summarized on the North Atlantic Right Whale Monitoring, Conservation, and Protection page.
Although the research vessel was initially working in the area of the Cape Charles buoy due to the acoustic detections, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMARI) aerial survey team relayed a sighting of a right whale close to shore near the VA/NC border. Coordinating with the CMARI shore contact, an image of the individual was run through HDR’s onboard photo-ID catalog and determined to be a reproductive adult female, NARWC #1703/Wolf. The vessel team made their way to the whale’s location and collected observation data but unfortunately her behavior did not allow for a suction-cup CATS tag to be deployed.
NARWC #1703 is 36 years old and has given birth to 4 calves; interestingly, one of those calves known as #3503 Caterpillar, was seen in nearly the same location in November last year! Could she have learned this migration route from her mom?