Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

35 Years of Research & Education

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    Right Whale Field Notes



    During the winter and spring, CCS researchers spend hundreds of hours in the field studying right whales from research vessels and aircraft.  This page is intended to provide a brief overview of the methods Center researchers use in their ongoing studies of the North Atlantic right whale.  For a more detailed description of this research, click on any of the links at the top of the page. 


    Population monitoring

    Tracklines across Cape Cod BayIn a typical season, thousands of miles are flown by the aerial survey 

    team.  Flying at speeds of approximately 100 knots at an altitude of 750 feet, observers aboard the aircraft record all sightings of marine mammals along a series of track lines across Cape Cod Bay and along the eastern shore of the Cape (see map at right). When right whales are spotted, the pilot circles so researchers can take photographs for individual identification and to record data on position and behavior. Back in the lab, the photographs are matched to a catalog of individual animals to ascertain the identity of individual whales.  These sightings then become part of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium catalog and sightings database thus contributing to the life history record of the individual whales.  Right whale sighting information is passed on to the Sighting Advisory System (SAS) in order to inform mariners to the location and presence of right whales. 


    Habitat Studies

    Since 1984, a series of oceanographic stations

    (see map at right) in Cape Cod Bay have been routinely sampled in an effort to better-understand the habitat of the North Atlantic Right whale.  Using a variety of methods, including nets and pumps designed to capture the zooplankton prey of right whales, PCCS researchers investigate how the complex physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of this habitat interact and influence right whale behavior and distribution.  In addition to on-station sampling, zooplankton are also collected in areas where right whales are observed feeding in order to elucidate both the quantity and quality of food being targeted by whales.  This also provides an opportunity for further photo-identification efforts – learning who is eating may be as important as what they are eating.


    Acoustic and Behavior Studies

    Researchers at PCCS have also studied the vocalizations and behavior of right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Relatively little is known about how often and when these whales produce sounds, whether they are acoustically active during specific behaviors (e.g. feeding, resting etc) and whether they only vocalize when they are alone or with a group. Passive monitoring is one of the methods that has been suggested for monitoring the presence or absence of right whales in areas where aerial or boat monitoring is not feasible. Passive monitoring involves deploying stand-alone devices in the marine environment, which listen and record vocalizations remotely. Determining the amount of time that right whales spend vocalizing will therefore enable researchers to work out the percentage of time that passive monitoring techniques will be effective. This project will also undertake focal follows, which involve following individual whales for extended periods of time. Focal follows will help to provide further information on the amount of time that whales spend at the surface (and are therefore vulnerable to ship strike), small-scale movements within the bay and behavior. Individual whales that are subject to focal follows will also be photographed and matched to the catalogue to determine their identity. All of this data will help scientists to better understand the behavior of right whales and thus improve their ability to protect them.


    Right whale images taken under NOAA Fisheries permit 633-1763, under the authority of

    the U.S. Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts - please request PCCS permission for use.


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