As Guests Watch Whales, The New England Aquarium Catalogs

What’s In a Name

The New England Aquarium, nestled up against the Boston harbor, provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the facility’s resident creatures like fur seals (including some that were rescued!), bonnethead sharks, and little blue penguins, and, with a separate ticket, some rather large animals that call the waters off Massachusetts home for just a few months each year.

Guests who step aboard one of the whale watching catamarans named Cetacea, Aurora, or Asteria, take a trip to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary where marine mammals abound. Finback whales, minke whales, and humpback whales are commonly sighted, and, while they are not considered the “main attraction”, it is also possible to see Atlantic white-sided dolphins, pilot whales, or harbor seals.

As you snap pictures in awe, the aquarium’s research team is on the third deck, pointing out where to look for the animals next and explaining the behavioral tendencies of that particular species to the spectators via a microphone. They also take the opportunity to record the behaviors the animals demonstrate on that particular day, like lunge feeding, tail lobbing, or breaching, as well as which individual animals are sighted.

Like a human’s fingerprint, or a zebra’s stripes, every whale has an identifying feature. For example, each humpback whale has a unique pattern on its fluke, or tail. Scientists around the world use these patterns to track the animals as their migration routes can cover thousands of miles. The same individuals that the New England Aquarium team logs in the summer may be sighted all the way down in the Caribbean Sea, where the females give birth during the winter.

Pleats' Flukes

Pleats’ Flukes

Milkweed's Flukes

Milkweed’s Flukes

Wizard's Flukes

Wizard’s Flukes

Each animal is labelled in the catalog with a number, but the researchers tend to call them by name. Among others, individual whales named Pleats, Milkweed, Echo, and Wizard made appearances on the day that we boarded. We also had the opportunity to see the months old calves that belong to the latter three.

Those calves are documented, just as their mothers are, and will eventually earn names too. According to the researchers introducing these animals to us that day, there are a variety of ways that a whale earns its name. Often times, it is because of a marking along its body. Echo, for example, has several lines on her fluke that look like illustrated sonar pings ‘echoing’ off of an object.

Every so often, the whale is named after a person. Right whale 1158 is referred to as ‘Bud’ in honor of the New England Aquarium’s CEO after nearly a decade’s worth of service in the position.

Benefits of Cataloging

Just as humpback whales do, right whales also migrate. One of the rarest species of marine mammal, with only about five hundred individuals left in the world, right whales have been the subject of extensive research conducted by the New England Aquarium. Rather than identify them by their flukes, naturalists look at the white patches that form on their heads. These ‘callosities’ (pronounced kah-laus’-uh-tees) give the appearance of being white because of parasites which highlight patches of the animal around their face, lips, and eyes. Each pattern is different, and, in general, stays relatively the same throughout the animal’s lifetime.

Scientists track the individuals from Maine down the east coast to Florida. Tracking their migration path could prove instrumental in preserving the species. Almost fifty percent of known right whale deaths are human related, the most prevalent being vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. By mapping where the whales go and the route they take to get there, the New England Aquarium works with the shipping industry to prevent fatal strikes to these animals.

The scarring on Pleats' back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

The scarring on Pleats’ back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

Given their research about the migratory and assembly patterns of right whales, the Aquarium has been able to make suggestions in the past as to the benefits of relocating shipping lanes that dissected important feeding grounds for these animals.

Based on information collected by research teams, like that connected to the New England Aquarium, scientists predicted that without restrictions to ocean-going vessels, the right whale species may never be able to recover from its low numbers. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implemented a temporary rule which imposed a speed limit on ships traveling within certain areas that coincided with the range of right whales along the east coast.

Initial estimations indicated that ship strikes to right whales by eighty to ninety percent. As time went on, the speed limit seemed to be effective, as evidenced by the fact that, since the rule went into place, there had been no right whale deaths caused by ship strikes in these designated locations.

This past December, NOAA issued a statement declaring that the rule protecting right whales from lethal ship strikes was no longer ‘temporary’. The New England Aquarium’s research team celebrated this victory, with research assistant Marianna H. writing, the “removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!”

Continuing Conservation

(Above is a video of the New England Aquarium’s Research Team sampling right whales’ exhales. Please note that this is not a part of a whale watching tour and that, without specific permits, it is illegal to be this close to these animals.)

The New England Aquarium’s involvement with whales, right whales in particular, is their longest running conservation program. Whether their method of transportation is of the sky or sea, they continue to photograph and log identifying details as well as track these animals as they make their annual journey along the eastern coast of the United States.

You have a chance to assist them by sponsoring a right whale and supporting legislation that looks to protect whales’ futures. You can also try your hand as a research assistant by playing this ‘matching game’ on the New England Aquarium’s website.

Remember too that if you are out boating where any marine life may be present, you are sharing those waters. Keep a slow speed, an eye on the surface for any activity, and remember that the animal has the right of way.

Check out the most recent right whale news by reading the New England Aquarium’s right whale blog written by research assistants and full of pictures of these amazing animals. If you are curious about the whales that are sighted and what behaviors whale watchers are seeing, check out the New England Aquarium’s whale watching blog. And, if you are interested in taking a trip on one of the Aquarium’s catamarans and viewing these whales, visit their website for details.

Don’t forget to share your experiences and pictures with us on our Facebook page, that’s where we posted ours!

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Conservation

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

NOAA’s Humpback Whale Bio

NOAA’s Right Whale Bio

 

 

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