Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Research Station Goes up in the Air

Thanks to contributions from Friends of the GMWSRS, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Province of New Brunswick, we have been able to renovate our facility on Grand Manan.  The funds have allowed us to lift the house and put a full basement under it and none too soon.  Most of the sills had rotted away.

We expect to have the house set back on the foundation the beginning of December, after which we will install the windows and basement door and have the roof re-shingled. We had to remove the old brick chimneys which were no longer used and were more of a liability than an asset.  After the drainage and back filling occurs, we will then have a lot of landscaping and building of decks to access the now higher building.  Because Grand Manan is very rocky, we could not dig a deep basement and the basement extends upwards, leaving the house higher than it was.

GMWSRS facility on Grand Manan with new basement poured under it, after it was lifted to allow this to happen.

GMWSRS facility as it was before the renovation.
We look forward to the new space and plan to expand the museum with a meeting room and also a work space for researchers and interns.  In the winter, the added storage will be appreciated.  We will also have expanded parking for visitors.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Few Hours at Sea

As part of the daily routine aboard a whale watch vessel, I get to experience many things, both on the water and on board, while also recording what I see and taking photographs of whales and sharks for photo-identification purposes. The database can give a snapshot of daily and yearly views of a portion of the Bay of Fundy and can be helpful for others who can't be out as often.  Photo-identification of individuals are added to the appropriate catalogues to follow individuals and learn more about them.

In a few short hours, we can sail to a feeding area for seabirds, whales, seals and fish and experience a glimpse of an amazing ecosystem and share this with our passengers. The weather can change from restricted visibility to clear and from swell to calm seas. On July 28th, we got to experience all of these plus helped remove some threats to the marine animals and have a bit of a laugh.

We began by retrieving a poly-balloon used by fishermen to mark their fishing gear with 100 m (300') of sinking rope. The poly balloon and line had broken off its intended fishing gear and was drifting in the current.  This loose line is dangerous to a whale because of risk of entanglement. Given the growth on the rope it had been floating for awhile. It is always best to remove loose gear to prevent this hazard.  Sometimes it can be returned to the fisherman if there are identifying marks but not in this case. We then found a huge bunch of party balloons for someone's Sweet 16 birthday. When helium balloons are released they travel up into the atmosphere and are carried toward the coast.  The air is cooler along the coast, some of the helium escapes, and the balloons usually descend into the ocean where they float on the surface mimicking jellies.  They are mistakenly eaten by turtles and even whales and can cause the death of the animal from blockage.  It is a sad way to die.  Even though it looks pretty to see the balloons rise into the air, there are deadly consequences and this practice should always be avoided.

Party balloons and a loose fishing balloon with sinking rope picked up while whale watching
During the sail, we see numerous seabirds.  These birds are well adapted to life at sea.  Sooty shearwaters, for instance, only return to land when they are nesting in the southern hemisphere and even then they may spend days foraging before returning to the nest.  Their long, narrow wings allow them to glide effortlessly, particularly when they are close to the water surface which is where the term shearwater comes from.  They are in the tube-nosed bird family which also included albatrosses, petrels, fulmars and storm petrels.

Sooty shearwater in flight
Some seabirds are very tiny but yet still spend their lives at sea, except for nesting.  Red-necked phalaropes are one of those small species, a shorebird who gave up the shore.  They are often found along tide streaks where seaweed accumulates, providing shelter for small zooplankton which the birds eat.  These female red-necked phalaropes are on their way to their non-breeding area in South America and stop in the Bay of Fundy for about three weeks to double their weight and continue their journey, after laying eggs in the Arctic.  They do not incubate but leave that to the males.  Some of these females still have their breeding plumage which gives them their name.

Red-necked female phalaropes, some still in breeding plumage
Not all of the members of the whale family are large either.  This harbour porpoise calf, born in June is only about 100 cm in length. Still staying close to its mother, they do venture a few metres away at times.  Its small size is apparent when compared to the great shearwater.

Harbour porpoise calf and great shearwater
The Bay of Fundy has some very interesting oceanography and the whales and seabirds are aware of times and locations of ready prey availability which change each day according to the lunar cycle.  If you arrive at the correct time, the observations of whales and seabird feeding can be spectacular.  Although food can be abundant, the birds often fight over a fish.  This herring gull appears to be winning the fight, only to be attacked by a great shearwater, also intent on swallowing this herring.  Bite marks can be seen on the fish.

Herring gull with a herring
 The feeding aggregations can have many species including minke, finback and humpback whales, harbour porpoises, and harbour and grey seals.  While photographing this minke whale, I was also fortunate to capture a harbour porpoise with its head fully out of the water.  They are often swimming so quickly that they partly propel themselves into the air when breathing.

Harbour porpoise in the background and minke whale in the foreground, the smallest toothed whale and baleen whale, respectively, in the Bay of Fundy.  Great shearwaters and a herring gull are also in the photograph.

Finback whales are slower to surface, given their larger size, and with the right lighting conditions, more of the whale can be seen underwater.  Finbacks have an asymmetrically coloured face with the right side of the jaw being white and the left grey.  This photograph show that.
Finback whale showing the white right jaw (underwater)
We finished the trip by being entertained by one of our passengers who brought his pirate costume along.  
One of our passengers dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow
All in all, the Bay offers some amazing sights and with often calm seas in the summer, these can be enjoyed by all.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Right Whales in Weirs

So what is a right whale doing close to shore?  In the calving areas and in Cape Cod Bay, right whales are sometimes were close to shore but we tend not to think about these occurrences and expect them to be well offshore.

In the Bay of Fundy, typically the largest zooplankton masses are concentrated in the deep water of the Grand Manan Basin which is between Grand Manan Island and Nova Scotia.  However, some right whales do wander and come close to shore, particularly in the spring or fall when zooplankton patches have yet to form or are beginning to break apart.

There were at least three documented cases of right whales in herring weirs, passive fish traps, in the Bay of Fundy prior to 2012.  These five whales were all released successfully:
  • 1976 when a mother and calf swam into the Brown's Weir, now called the Mystery Weir, on Grand Manan Island.
  • 1998 when two right whales swam into Bradford's Cove Weir, on Grand Manan Island (the weir operators said that they had another right whale in that weir before but no documentation exists for that occurrence).
  • 2006 when one right whale swam into a weir in Deadman's Harbour on the New Brunswick mainland.
Bradford's Cove herring weir seen from the air in November when the netting has been removed for the winter but the stakes and top poles are left in place.
So it was not totally unexpected when a call came in on August 26 that there was a right whale in Bradford's Cove Weir.  It was reported by people staying at a cottage overlooking the weir in this remote cove on the south western side of Grand Manan Island.  The male right whale #1708, was successfully released after a number of top poles and stakes and the netting on the outside of the weir were removed and the whale safely swam out. In 1998, netting was also dropped and top poles and stakes had to be removed before the two right whales would swim out, one following the other.
Right whale #1708 in Bradford's Cove weir August 26, 2012.  The rough skin patches on the whale's head allow each whale to be identified individually.

Right Whale #1708 in Bradford's Cove weir.  Although right whales lift their tail when diving, their tails often are uniformly black and are not used to identify individual whales.

Right whale #1708 on the day of his release from the Bradford's Cove weir, August 27, 2012.  Fisheries and Oceans, Campobello Whale Rescue Team and the weir operators monitored the whale's condition and worked to remove netting, top poles and stakes to allow the whale to swim out.

We were surprised by a second right whale on October 17, #3790, in Mystery Weir.  The sex of this whale is unknown, although it is suspected to be a female from photos taken of it in the weir.  Mystery Weir is in Whale Cove on the northern end of Grand Manan Island.  The weir operators were going to take the netting down for the winter when the whale swam in and continued with the plan.  As soon as the bottom netting was dropped, the whale squeezed out between the stakes to freedom and no stakes needed to be removed.  The stakes in this weir are more widely spaced than in the Bradford's Cove weir and obviously the whale felt confident pushing its way out.  In 1976, no stakes were removed either and both mother and calf escaped when the top netting was dropped.

Right whale #3790 in Mystery Weir, October 17, 2012.  the top netting had been dropped but the bottom netting was still in place.

It is a bit ironic that the weirs involved in the two entrapments in 2012 have also entrapped right whales in the past, but both weirs are large and actually had netting up, unlike most herring weirs in 2012. Few herring weirs had netting up because of very low herring catches in the last few years.  Also ironic is that right whales do not eat herring but rather zooplankton.  However, zooplankton patches were not large this year in the Bay and the copepods did not have large fat reserves for overwintering.  The right whales may simply have been looking for other food sources.  Mystery Weir netting was completely meshed with skeleton shrimp, Caprella mutica, a species from Japan that was first reported in the Bay of Fundy in 2003.  The odour trail from these crustaceans may have peeked the curiosity of this right whale but in the end, entrapped the whale.
Right whale #3790 before swimming out between the stakes after the netting was dropped.  The whale spent the night in the herring weir before escaping.
If we could be sure that right whales have temper tantrums, then #3790, was certainly exhibiting symptoms.  The exhales could be be heard echoing through the cove and kept people awake during the night it was entrapped.  It definitely wanted out but when it did leave, it worked slowly toward the east, diving regularly and moving back and forth along a tide streak.  Fortunately, the whale was observed on several surfacings after escaping and it was apparent that on its way out of the weir, it made a clean break with no entangling lines or netting.

Right whale #3790 entrapped in a herring weir off Grand Manan Island, October 17, 2012.
With the 2006 entrapment, there was no netting involved, having already been removed for the winter.  However, the wooden stakes were very close together and did not provide any opportunity for the whale to swim out between stakes.  Why don't the whales swim back out the way they came in, through the large opening called the mouth?  Unfortunately, the mouth is often in shallower water, facing the shore and is indented into the trap, creating a pocket (or hook) on either side.  The whales are intent on getting back into deeper water and spend most of their time on the back of the weir which faces deeper water and freedom.  This design is deliberate to keep herring in the trap and does a good job with whales and porpoises as well.

We would like to thank all of those involved from the weir operators, to the people who reported the entrapped whales, to the New England Aquarium for identifying the individual whales to the Marine Animal Response Network for spreading the word amongst the responders and Fisheries and Oceans.