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Marine Species Monitoring

It’s Whale Season in the Mid-Atlantic!

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.

Upcalls detected by buoy

This spectrogram shows data relayed back to researchers from the buoy through satellites. Right whale upcalls are denoted by the number “5” underneath, one additional call was not automatically detected. Click the image to explore more data on the Robots4Whales website.

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.

Right whale flukes

Photo by Jessica Aschettino, HDR Inc.

Left side of right whale with dolphins

Photo by Jessica Aschettino, HDR Inc.

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?

Right whale surfacing

Photo by Jessica Aschettino, HDR Inc.

whale with dolphins

Photo by Jessica Aschettino, HDR Inc.

The field Team also had other whale sightings on this day, and continued their survey effort the next day where they had amazing observations of humpback whales.

Whale Map

This map shows the location of acoustic buoys and the slow zones triggered by recent detections, the aerial survey lines of the CMARI aerial team, and recent sightings of right whales in the area. Click the map to visit WhaleMap for  the most up to date information on right whales detections and observation along the Atlantic coast.  |  |  Navy FOIA  |  DoD Accessibility/Section 508  |  No Fear Act  |  Open Government  |  Plain Writing Act  |  Veterans Crisis Line  |  DoD Safe Helpline  |  Navy SAPR  |  NCIS Tips  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Webmaster  
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