CIRVA, the international recovery team for the vaquita, has asked an international group of experts to consider ex situ (out-of-habitat) options for conservation of the species. These options include the capture and housing of vaquitas in the Gulf of California. You can read about this approach in a news piece in Science. Presidents Pena Nieto and Obama recently announced a series of measures designed to protect the vaquita, including a long-awaited permanent ban on the use of gill nets throughout the range of the species. Read the Whitehouse news release here.
After a couple weeks of wind and rain, the weather gods smiled on us last week, and afforded us a chance to start our third year of satellite tagging work off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with Daniel Webster of Cascadia Research Collective. To date we have tagged forty short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), eight pelagic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), nine Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris), and a single sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and common dolphin (Delphinus delphis). On our first day in the field in 2014 and 2015, we deployed satellite tags on Cuvier’s beaked whales, and 2016 did not disappoint, as we had two tags on Ziphius before 10:30 in the morning.
The banner day continued with deployments on a bottlenose dolphin and short-finned pilot whale. But the day wasn’t over yet, as just before heading back to shore we came across a group of approximately 200 Clymene dolphins (Stenella clymene), a species we have NEVER observed from the vessel. Our aerial survey colleagues at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) have seen this species from the plane, but it was a still a great surprise for us. Even better, we were able to deploy a satellite tag on one individual, which will provide the first movement data for this species. And the fun didn’t end on the water.
After returning to the field house and comparing photographs to our species catalog, we confirmed that one of the Cuvier’s beaked whales we tagged was in our photo-ID catalog, first observed in 2014.
In May Andy attended the seventh meeting of CIRVA – the international recovery team for the vaquita. The team reviewed the results of the 2015 survey, which found only about 60 vaquitas left. Since then, at least three vaquitas have been killed by totoaba poachers. You can read the report of the meeting here and watch a film documenting the desperate struggle to keep the species from sliding into extinction here.
Doug Nowacek, Ari Friedlaender, Erin Puckett and Logan Pallin (a Duke undergraduate and now one of Ari’s master’s students at Oregon State) are on their way to the Antarctic to study the ecology of humpback whales as part of the annual Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. Doug and Logan will be working out of Palmer Station while Ari and Erin will be aboard the ASRV Laurence M. Gould. You can follow their adventures at: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/ltercetaceans/. The Antarctic may never be the same.
The vaquita is the most endangered whale, dolphin, or porpoise in the world. The remnant population of less than 100 animals lives in a tiny area in the northern Gulf of California. The Government of Mexico is working to conserve the species, but it is threatened by an illegal fishery for the totoaba, an endangered sea bass that is also endemic to the Gulf of California. Totoaba swim bladders are dried and smuggled from Mexico to China, sometimes through the United States. You can read more about the vaquita on the web site of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and listen to an interview with Andy, who serves on the International Recovery Team for the vaquita, here on NPR’s Living on Earth. Time is running out for this species…
We wrapped up our early summer field season this week with three excellent days off Cape Hatteras. Overall, we deployed 15 satellite-linked transmitters: 10 on short-finned pilot whales, 3 on Cuvier’s beaked whales and one each on a pelagic bottlenose dolphin and a sperm whale (our first tag deployment on the latter). In addition, we deployed two Digital Acoustic Tags on pilot whales.
Sunday was a particularly good day – with three tags out on Ziphius and another on a sperm whale. We enjoyed gorgeous conditions that allowed us to relocate these deep-diving whales after their long submergences. The good conditions allowed us to work about 40 nautical miles from shore, well outside the shelf break in the deep waters that these species prefer. We also recorded our first sighting of a pygmy or dwarf sperm whale (Genus Kogia) – these cryptic animals strand frequently in the southeastern U.S. but are almost never observed at sea.
One of the adult male beaked whales we tagged was well known to us – we deployed a DTag on him last year. Two of the satellite transmitters on beaked whales and the sperm whale tag will send data on the diving behavior of these animals in addition to their locations. One of the beaked whales we tagged last year made a dive of 2,800 m. Pretty impressive on a single breath.
We’ll continue to follow the movements and behavior of these animals from our computers over the summer and we’ll be back again in the fall with Daniel Webster from Cascadia to deploy another round of tags. You can follow the adventures of these whales on Movebank.
This past week we’ve been working on our Deep Divers project – looking at the feeding ecology and diving behavior of three species of deep-diving odontocetes off Cape Hatteras: Cuvier’s beaked whales, short-finned pilot whales and sperm whales. The latter have yet to make an appearance, so we’ve been focusing on Ziphius and Globicephala. The pilot whales were referred to as ‘potheads’ by whalers because of their bulbous foreheads.
On Monday we had a DTag attached to a pilot whale briefly, but it did not last for the planned four-hour deployment. We were treated to several sightings of Cuvier’s beaked whales in beautiful conditions, however, and managed to obtain a biopsy sample from one of the animals thanks to Zach’s prowess with the crossbow. We also collected some excellent photo-ID images which Danielle will match to our catalog for this species. We were working with the beaked whales in the beautiful azure water of the Gulf Stream – quite a treat. Lots of time for idle discussion while the whales foraged a kilometer or more below us.
On Tuesday we brought Dr. Vincent Janik from the University of St. Andrews offshore with us. Our post-doc Nicola Quick did her Ph.D. with Vincent so it was great to see them together in the field again. We attached a DTag to a pilot whale at 11:30 and Vincent, Nic, Danielle and Heather followed it from the Exocetus for four hours. The whale was very metronomic – making long 20-minute dives, followed by 6-8 minutes at the surface before diving again. Nic was testing some new focal follow protocols to augment our regular data collection.
We had two good days in the field and then the weather turned – with rain and wind for the rest of the week. We hope to be back offshore next week to deploy more DTags with Vincent and Nicola and maybe do am little work with some of the pelagic bottlenose dolphins. The following week Daniel Webster will be back to deploy some more satellite tags (the seven we deployed on pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins last month are all still transmitting). Stay tuned…
Joe Roman, Dave Johnston, Meagan Dunphy-Daly and Andy recently published a paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on the recovery of some populations of marine mammals. Using elephant seals, gray seals and humpback whales as examples, we discuss the challenges facing managers when populations of these marine predators recover and recolonize their former ranges. In the paper we argue that we should celebrate these conservation success stories and plan for more in the future. We emphasize that this does not diminish the urgency with which we need to deal with critically endangered, small and declining populations, such as the vaquita. You can access the article here.
We’re now almost half-way through our spring field season – we’ve been busy working off Cape Hatteras for the past two weeks. We have deployed six satellite-linked transmitters on pilot whales and one more on a pelagic bottlenose dolphin. Two of the tags we have deployed on pilot whales also transmit data on dive duration and depth.
On Monday we also deployed our first Digital Acoustic Tag of the field season on a pilot whale. These tags record depth, orientation and acceleration using a suite of sensors as well as a record of the acoustic environment of the tagged whale. The tags sample the orientation of the animal in three dimensions with sufficient resolution to capture individual fluke strokes. We program the tags to release from the animal at a pre-determined time by venting the suction cups (this works most of the time). A VHF transmitter embedded in the tag helps us to track the whale and to recover the device. Once the tag is jettisoned from the whale and recovered, we download data from the tag to a computer.
We attached the tag to a whale that we found in a large aggregation that contained several of our satellite-tagged animals. We followed it for six hours from our small Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat, the Exocetus. We kept track of the composition of the group of the tagged whale – it was initially in a pretty tight group of 17, but peeled off from this group with four other whales for a couple of hours before rejoining the original group in another large feeding aggregation. It’s always interesting to peer into the lives of these animals for a few hours. We successfully recovered the tag at about 5:30 and were back on shore by 8:00 PM.
As always, it’s been a bit of a struggle to deal with the weather 40 miles from shore – we’ve turned around twice this week when sea conditions turned out to be worse than forecast. But it’s always worth it when we manage to get offshore – on Monday we were also treated to sightings of two South Polar Skuas, a flock of phalaropes and a ton of scalloped hammerheads in and amongst the pilot whales.
This spring we are once again deploying satellite tags on whales and dolphins off Cape Hatteras with Daniel Webster from the Cascadia Research Collective. Yesterday (May 16th) was our first day of real work and we managed to deploy three satellite tags on short-finned pilot whales. Two of the tags will transmit locations only and the third tag will also send information about the whale’s diving behavior. We were able to obtain small biopsies of skin and superficial blubber that will allow us to determine the sex and reproductive status of the tagged whales.
In addition to the pilot whales, which were numerous offshore yesterday, we encountered bottlenose dolphins and a solitary Risso’s dolphin. Scalloped hammerhead sharks were common amongst the pilot whales, as they usually are, and we also saw a couple of large manta rays. And, finally, we also sighted small numbers of sooty and greater shearwaters and Wilson’s storm petrels.
This work involves very early mornings, and a long transit to and from Oregon Inlet to our study site 35 nautical miles from shore. We usually leave the dock at 6:00 AM and are at the shelf break by 8:30 or so, returning home before 6:00 PM, so that we can fuel up the R/V Richard T. Barber for the next day. So, very long days, but it is worth it for the amazing experience to be surrounded by pilot whales offshore.
Thanks to support from the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic for making this work happen.