Tagging North Atlantic Right Whales off the Southeast US
by Doug Nowacek -- February 11th, 2014
We are working off northeast Florida, ever been to Fernandina Beach, FL? It’s about as far north in FL you can go, literally, and is just a stone’s throw from Georgia. In these nearshore, shallow waters some North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) come to spend the winter. In particular, we see juveniles and female whales with their new calves; many calves are born in these waters and spend their first 1-2 months of life before migrating north to high latitude feeding grounds for the summer. In recent years we have learned that these whales can be found in northern waters throughout the year, but these waters off north Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are very important for young calves and juveniles.
This area is also home to significant industrial and military activity, with several commercial ports and naval bases along the coast. Recently, a ship speed rule for ports along the US east coast was renewed and made permanent by the National Marine Fisheries Service. This rule requires all ships to slow to 10 kts while approaching ports where right whales are known to be active at that time of year, i.e., the restrictions are seasonal. The US Navy operates two facilities in the area, the Naval Station Mayport (Florida) and the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay (Georgia).
The Navy is also contemplating an underwater training range off this coast, and those plans are what bring us here to work with right whales. As part of their environmental monitoring that accompanies their activities off this coast, the Navy is supporting us as we attempt to learn some basics about the behavior of the whales while they spend the winter in Florida and Georgia. Specifically, we are looking at the movement of the whales in the area over a period of up to 24 hours, and we also are focused on the rate at which the whales produce sounds. The first question is of interest to us to explore how they’re using this habitat, and the Navy would like to know how the risk to the animals changes throughout the day with respect to their proximity to the proposed range and other Naval activities. The rate at which the whales produce sounds is interesting for basic questions of vocal communication and ecology, and is also very important to inform efforts for passive acoustic monitoring (PAM). PAM is one of the primary tools we use to monitor for the presence and, in some cases, the density of animals, and with good information about the whales’ vocal rates we can improve the efficacy of PAM for right whale monitoring in this busy coastal area.
Here we are aboard Duke’s new research vessel, the R/V Richard T Barber, just about to attach one of our non-invasive suction cup tags, which records the behavior, position and vocal activity of the whales.