LUBEC, Maine — Somewhere off the coast of Grand Manan Island, out of sight of land and surrounded by a slightly angry Atlantic Ocean, the lookouts perch on the prow of the research vessel and scan the sea.
“Fluke! Two o’clock!” comes the shout. The boat is shut down and in the sudden quiet, all six researchers on board look for the whales. Another yell — “Up!” — and there on the surface is the first of 10 North Atlantic right whales that would be sighted this day.
His number is 1032 and his name is Thorny, a 50-foot-long, 70-ton male first spotted by researchers in 1980 off the coast of Georgia, in the right whale breeding grounds. He isn’t handsome — his head is covered with crusty callosites, rough patches of skin appearing very wart-like — but he is beyond awesome.
Hour after hour, this is how it goes: scan the seas, spot a whale, photograph and identify the whale, and, if possible, obtain a skin and fat sample by darting. Sometimes hours go by without a sighting. And then there is a party.
Three whales — called a surface active group — are dancing on the sea, slapping the water with their fins and flukes, blowing and verbalizing. Two are males; one, Innermatch, is a very vocal female. For 20 amazing minutes, the research vessel bobs alongside the dancing whales. And then they dive, gone in a moment, leaving only a smooth surface and an awesome memory behind.
For 31 years, researchers and scientists from the New England Aquarium in Boston have spent their summers at Lubec studying the right whale, one of the world’s most endangered whale species. Only 400 or so right whales are believed to exist and they too summer off the coast of Maine in the cold Bay of Fundy.
“This is our mission — to keep the North Atlantic right whale from going extinct,” senior scientist Dr. Moira Brown explained.
Weather was the enemy this summer, Brown said, as the 29-foot vessel, the Nereid, left the dock at Lubec. Brown said the research teams had 14 days on the water by mid-August 2010, but only five in 2011. Seas were so rough on last week’s trip that a second vessel, which was attempting to collect samples of blow from right whales, was forced to return to port.
But the Nereid pushed on, its researchers anxious to obtain samples from the whales, which will be analyzed and shared with whale researchers and scientists worldwide.
Brown has been chasing the right whale for 27 years.
“It is still the mystery,” she said of the lure of the research. “We discovered that the right whales’ calving grounds are off Cape Canaveral and Georgia. Two-thirds of those whales come to the Bay of Fundy. But we have no idea where the males go and we have no idea where the other two-thirds of breeding females and calves go.”
Monitoring the Bay of Fundy whales is key to answering some of those questions, she said. “It is a really nice blend of research linked to recovery.”
Along with monitoring just which whales are in the bay and testing the samples of blow, Lubec-based researchers also are studying the relationship between mother whales and their calves.
Brown said that for reasons no one really understands, right whales are producing alarmingly low numbers of calves. In the 1999-2000 calving season, for instance, researchers sighted only one new calf. A dramatic change took place in the 2000-2001 calving season with the birth of more than 30 calves, but no one knows for sure why the birth rates are fluctuating so much, Brown said. The scientists at Lubec are trying to answer these questions.
North Atlantic right whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, Brown said. They also are threatened by a low reproductive rate, habitat loss, disease and environmental contaminants. Solutions to reduce human impact on right whales exist, but implementation remains a challenge.
Some of those solutions included gear restrictions and expensive gear adaptations that Maine fishermen have objected to. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency is looking at further restrictions to the number of lines lobster fishermen may have in a given area.
At recent hearings held around the state, lobstermen said right whales are not being entangled in lobster gear and that the restrictions are unnecessary.
Back in the boat, Brown is particularly proud of Calvin — a North Atlantic right whale orphaned in 1992 when its mother was killed in the Bay of Fundy by a passing ship and whose story was used to move the shipping lanes east of Grand Manan Island.
“Thirteen years later, we were able to get the shipping lanes changed,” she said. “Calvin was able to bring her first calf back to a very different Bay of Fundy.”
While scientists are optimistic that the North Atlantic whale population could be increasing, the population remains so small that it likely cannot reproduce at a rate to sustain itself. Dr. Amy Knowlton, one of the Lubec researchers, estimated the growth rate at just 1 to 2 percent a year.
Knowlton said two right whales died off the southeastern United States this past winter because of fishing gear entanglements, and that as much as 82 percent of the North Atlantic whale population has been estimated to have scars from entanglements. “It is a very significant problem,” Knowlton said.
Knowlton described the oceans that the endangered right whales ply as “an urban ocean,” meaning it has a density of fishing gear and a high shipping volume.
Throughout the day on the water, the six researchers rotated chores, first spotting whales, then recording data or piloting the vessel. A sperm whale, basking sharks and dolphins also made appearances.
Brown and senior scientist Dr. Philip Hamilton were able to dart two whales. The dart — about the thickness of a ballpoint pen — pierces the thick skin and immediately falls off. The biopsy is recovered and the sample secured for future testing.
Brown said the biopsy will be used to determine if the whale is a male or female and which whale family tree it belongs to. Along with photo identification, skin and blubber samples are collected for genetic and contaminant studies, and fecal samples are collected for studies on reproductive health.
On this day, the researchers spotted 10 North Atlantic right whales, one sperm whale and one minke.
“Our biggest day was over 100,” Brown said. “But 50 could be an average day.”
“Last year we had many days when we saw nothing,” Knowlton said. “It was pretty frustrating.”
The presence of a sperm whale generated plenty of interest among the researchers.
“Last year was the first time we saw a sperm whale in the Bay of Fundy,” Knowlton said. “It could be an indication that the water or food source is changing.”
She said this continues to be an area studied closely. When the sperm whale spotted last week dove, it defecated. The researchers scrambled to collect the fecal matter but were unsuccessful.
As long as fog and weather do not interfere, the research team will remain at Lubec and head out to sea daily through September.
For more information on the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale research project, go to www.narwc.org.