Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cetacean firsts for the Bay of Fundy in 2012

With increasing water temperatures it is expected that species not usually seem in colder waters such as the Bay of Fundy, may be found, as the temperatures rise.  This has certainly been the case for ocean sunfish, Mola mola, and leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, with increased sightings the last few years.  To find an Arctic species may be less likely, however, in August 2012 a bowhead or Greenland right whale, Balaena mysticetus, was seen several times in the Bay of Fundy, the first by the New England Aquarium in the Grand Manan Basin, then by whale watchers off Nova Scotia, then possibly from the wharf in Hall Harbour (photos were not conclusive), and lastly off Grand Manan Island.  This is the first known sighting of a bowhead whale in the Bay of Fundy.  There may have been bowhead whales ranging much further south during and after the last ice age, but their exact range during that time is not known.

Bowhead whale photographed by Christine Callaghan off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The bowhead whale was quite elusive which would be expected from a whale that spends most of its time in relatively vessel free waters of the Arctic Ocean and not habituated to constant engine noise.  These whales are also hunted along the shores of Greenland and occasionally Baffin Island by Inuit as part of their traditional hunts, possibly increasing their aversion to vessels.  Having spent time studying bowhead whales in the Arctic in the middle 1980s, it was still thrilling to see this very lost whale.  Ironically, there was a sighting of right whales off Northern Newfoundland this summer - possibly a part of a whale exchange program :-)!
Photograph taken by Sarah McDonald December 25 that spurred the recovery of the dolphin from White Head Island.

Male, striped dolphin collected from White Head Island on December 26, 2012.

The second new cetacean species for the Bay of Fundy was a striped dolphin, Stenella coeruleoabla, unfortunately found dead on White Head Island, a small island off Grand Manan Island.  All of the circumstances of the stranding are not known at this time.  The male dolphin was collected December 26, after being on the shore for a few days.  The cold temperatures prevented deterioration, with only a small amount of scavenging.  The dolphin has been stored in the freezer of a local fish plant until a detailed necropsy can be performed in the future. Many thanks to the White Head Island fishermen who helped lift the dolphin onto the trailer and to the fish plant for storing it. 
Striped dolphin shrink wrapped for storage at a local fish plant until a detailed necropsy can be performed.
Striped dolphin wrapped for storage in freezer.

Short video on how to shrink wrap a dolphin.
Striped dolphins are more usually seen in warmer waters to the south but have been seen off the Scotian Shelf, Gulf of St. Lawrence and even Newfoundland, but no known records exist for the Bay of Fundy.

The Bay of Fundy never ceases to surprise.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Basking Shark Photo-id Catalogue and Sighting Database

Globally, sharks are becoming increasingly recognized as species of conservation concern. Threats to sharks in Atlantic Canada include: bycatch and entanglement in fisheries and, in the case of Basking sharks, vessel strikes. The Government of Canada Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk have funded a GMWSRS project to expand both our photo-identification catalogue of basking sharks for the Bay of Fundy and a shark sighting database.

At least six species of shark inhabit the Bay of Fundy, but little is known about their distribution, movements or occurrence in the Bay and even less so about the threats they face.

Video of a basking shark taken from a whale watching vessel July 21, 2012 south of Grand Manan Island
To learn more about sharks in the Bay of Fundy, the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station needs your help and contribution to:

1. Basking Shark Photo ID Catalogue. Photos of individual sharks can tell us whether the same sharks return to the Bay of Fundy year after year and how individuals use the Bay within the same season.

Basking shark dorsal fin photographed July 8, 2012 off Grand Manan Island
2. Shark Sighting Database. Sightings of all shark species will provide a better understanding of shark distribution and occurrence in the Bay of Fundy.

Individual Basking Sharks can be identified based on the shape of their dorsal fins and location of nicks and notches. Submit your sighting and photographs online:
  • Email:
  • Phone (toll-free): Via Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) Hotline 1-866-567-6277

Sperm Whales Return to the Bay for Third Year

Tail of a sperm whale seen in the Bay of Fundy July 21, Laurie Murison photographer
July 21 marked the beginning of the third summer sperm whales have been seen in the Bay of Fundy.  At least two males were seen in the upper Grand Manan Basin during a whale watch.  There have been squid at the wharf in North Head on Grand Manan Island since early June.  A sperm whale had been seen on an aerial survey for right whales in the lower Gulf of Maine in June and these combined made it likely that sperm whales would again be seen here.

In late August a dead sperm whale was found near Bar Harbor and was towed in to be necropsied.  A cause of death was not determined.  Sperm whales were not seen off Grand Manan after this time and the squid that had been at the wharves also disappeared.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Continued Work on Leach's Storm Petrels

Sandy Camilleri is a graduate student of Dr. Heather Koopman at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.  She has been studying Leach's Storm Petrels for her Masters thesis on Kent Island, part of the Bowdoin Scientific Station, in the Grand Manan archipelago.  Sandy hopes to defend her thesis this spring.

Most seabirds provision their chicks with whole or partially digested prey items whereas tube-nosed seabirds (albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars and petrels) concentrate their prey into a lipid rich oil, called stomach oil. For her master’s thesis research she is investigating this unique strategy used by tube-nosed seabirds by comparing the lipid composition, energy content, and the contaminant levels of the stomach oil to prey items that would be fed to other species.

Leach's Storm Petrel chick.  Note the tube-nose on the bill.

The tube-nosed species chosen for this study was the Leach’s storm-petrel, which has a large population that nests on Kent Island and has been studied since the 1930s by Bowdoin College. I spent a couple of weeks learning how to properly handle petrels and how to collect stomach oil in 2009, then developing the laboratory analyses of the stomach oil. In the summer of 2010, I spent a total of 8 weeks on Kent Island monitoring and collecting stomach oil samples from petrels. A total of 83 samples were collected in 2010, 49 from adults and 34 from chicks.
Sandy Camilleri with a Leach's Storm Petrel adult on Kent Island.

In the summer of 2011, Ispent a total of 8 weeks on Kent Island, again monitoring and collecting stomach oil samples from petrels. The field season was split into two parts, the first was 2 weeks in June which was used to set up the field site, called the Ditch, monitor the burrows and collect adult stomach oil samples. The second part started in mid-July and lasted for 6 weeks. During this time, I finished sampling adults and monitored the nests daily waiting for chicks to hatch. The first chick to hatch for the summer was found in the Ditch on July 14! Once the chicks hatched, they were weighed daily and measurements of wing length and tarsus (foot bone) length were recorded as growth indicators. Once chicks were 2 weeks old, those that gained more than 10g overnight were sampled, indicating that mom and/or dad had fed it that night. A second sample from the chicks was collected at least one week after the first.
Some of the buildings on Kent Island, part of the Bowdoin Scientific Station

A total of 147 samples were collected in 2011, 72 from adults, 45 from chicks sampled once, and 30 from chicks sampled twice. All samples were brought back to UNCW where lipid analysis and energy content will take place in Dr. Heather Koopman’s lab. Contaminant analysis will be completed in Dr. John Kucklick’s lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Charleston, SC.

This project will provide insights to the costs and benefits to the unique provisioning strategy used by tube-nosed seabirds. Leach’s storm-petrels are ideal for monitoring environmental health and can be used as a model for other tube-nosed seabirds that have more remote nesting locations, those that are experiencing population declines, and those that live in known contaminated areas.

Master Student First Impressions

The following are impressions and accomplishments of Masters Student, Zachary Siders, who spent his first field season in the Bay of Fundy off Grand Manan Island in August, 2011.  Zach is a Masters Student at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

As my first summer at the GMWSRS, I was unprepared for the extreme variation in the environment. Between tidal swings, fog banks, rolling swell, and varying chop the Bay of Fundy is always fluctuating.  Despite many days of rain, fog, swell, and chop we were able to survey for sharks, assist in whale poop collection, and help colleagues from Duke University deploy dive tags on fin whales. As part of the basking shark research group, my primary role was to help deploy seven satellite pop-up tags on adult sharks. With a cumulative of 255 hours of basking shark sightings we were fortunate to deploy six out of the seven pop-up satellite tags. These deployments are to provide information on migration out of the Bay of Fundy during the winter months. This effort was part of the station’s investigation of spatial and temporal patterns in basking shark movements.

Basking Shark, second largest shark and a filter feeder on zooplankton

As an active part of this investigation, I have been begun analyzing archival sighting data acquired by Laurie Murison, through Whales 'n Sails whale watching company. Fortunately, this dataset dates back 23 years and allows me to analyze how basking sharks spatial distribution has changed over time. Additionally, this dataset will be supplemented by a data request to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Together, this data will be used in habitat modeling the spatial distribution of basking sharks across the Bay of Fundy. Modeling this information will determine how basking shark critical habitat within the Bay of Fundy has changed across time. With the increasing prevalence of remote sensing data and detailed oceanographic information, the environment features defining this critical habitat can be elucidated. All of this information greatly increases our understanding where basking sharks occur in the Bay of Fundy, a critical habitat for these giant sharks.

Another aspect, I have begun analyzing is the dive profiling movements of basking sharks acquired through our Temperature-Depth Recording tagging efforts. These efforts have been ongoing since 2008 and have acquired 22 days of dive profiling data. This fine-scale diving information can help us understand how basking sharks utilize the extreme variations in the Bay of Fundy especially tidal fronts, temperature contours, and depth profiles. Unlike other basking shark habitats, the Bay of Fundy is extremely tidally driven as well as a protected body of water. Understanding how basking sharks utilized the unique dynamic oceanographic features can greatly enhance our understanding the ecological flexibility of these cosmopolitan creatures.
Basking shark just under the surface with only the large dorsal fin above the water surface.  Basking sharks received their name from this behaviour of coming to the surface.

Most importantly, understanding how basking sharks utilize critical habitat and where these habitats are in the Bay of Fundy can be used to further the conservation of this vulnerable species. In particular, I hope to spatial modeling and diving behavior analysis to determine the ship-strike risk to basking sharks in the bay. As these sharks spend up to 80% of their time within the 12 meter draft of cargo vessels, they are extremely vulnerable to cargo traffic travelling through the Bay of Fundy. Determining these ship-strike risks is essential for conserving basking sharks within the bay and more so, globally.

The field work this summer could not have been accomplished without the advisement of Dr. Andrew Westgate and the help of the rest of the GMWSRS senior scientists. Additionally, the help of Jared Juckiewicz, a summer research assistant, was considerable throughout the field season. The continued analysis could not be possible without Dr. Westgate, Dr. Heather Koopman, and Dr. David Johnston, and I would like to thank them for their ongoing support.

Tracking Greater Black-backed Gulls from Sable Island

Here is an open letter from one of our researchers who has been working on a Post-Doctoral study on Sable Island, requesting your help:

Dear gull enthusiasts,

On an icy, wintery trip to Sable Island this month, I was able to capture and deploy wing-tags on a dozen Great Black-backed Gulls that were happily gorging themselves on the carcasses of seal pups that didn't make it. There are far too many Black-backs on the island in the winter for them to be loafers sticking around from the summer breeding season. So...they are likely traveling here from other colonies (Maine? New Brunswick? Newfoundland?) to indulge on the ill fated seals.

Greater Black-backed Gull
This summer while you're in the field, keep your eyes open for these birds so that we might document their movements (tracking the old fashioned way). Please forward this email to colleagues, students, and volunteers that might be working around or in Great Black-backed colonies this summer.

Check out my latest blog entry for details and pictures of these blue/turquoise wing-tags on the birds.


Rob Ronconi
Postdoctoral Researcher
Dept. of Biology, Acadia University