Kicking off the first two-week session of field work in Lubec, ME, is a small core team consisting of Philip Hamilton, Kelsey Howe, and Johanna Anderson. I drove up with equipment from the Aquarium on Thursday June 14, and helped them set up the house and office. Our sweet friend and cook, Claire, was already preparing meals to freeze for the offshore team while making extra for us to eat for dinners. Friday flew by in a flurry of activity, and suddenly it was 5 a.m. on Saturday and we were getting ready for a boat day.

The dock was still non-existent, as was the Nereid, so we went ahead with the plan of chartering the Quoddy Link Marine’s Odyssey and boarded her on Campobello Island. The Odyssey is a sleek boat with a large comfortable seating area and an elevated enclosed wheelhouse—oh, just a little bit fancier than the Nereid!

The Odyssey
The Odyssey

The first day out is usually a “shakedown cruise.” We know we’re going to forget to bring something (ice packs in the biopsy cooler), we know there’s going to be some dust on that part of our brains that knows how to record data properly (20 lines of blank data entered), we know some piece of technology isn’t going to function (satellite phone never got a signal). This is just the way it goes, so we are patient with each other and try to be patient with ourselves (and yes, those three examples actually happened on this first trip).

 

Preparing the hydrophone.
Preparing the hydrophone.

We’re not used to seeing a lot of fishing gear in our survey area because there’s little overlap between the timing of the fisheries and our arrival. It’s a different story in June, though! We counted almost 400 vertical lines along our survey track.

Philip and Marianna check the plankton net
Philip and Marianna check the plankton net.

Left: Philip and Mariana check the plankton net to make sure it’s in working order. 

Around 10 a.m., I was on watch and spotted a single blow and what appeared to be a fluke blade, not too far from where some gear was set. We went about one mile in that direction, and then waited to see what would surface. A little after ten minutes from the initial blow, the whale came up and we headed towards it. The sea was choppy and we were unable to see the head. Is it a right whale? No… wait… maybe? After only a few breaths, the whale began to dive before we could get in the desired range for photographing it. Our MO is to not photograph random body parts of a whale unless you can get the head shot first, and if you can’t photograph it, we wait in the area until we resight it. Photographing from a distance and without a head becomes an option when we get the feeling that working an individual is difficult, and we when don’t want to stress the animal or waste time trying to get a good shot.

Can you tell where this story is going? The whale was a right whale. We did not get any photographs. We did not resight it. We circled the area again and again. We had eight experienced pairs of eyes on the water. Somehow that whale escaped us.

When you have a passion for cataloging things and you miss an opportunity like this, the level of disappointment is massive. This was a young whale with no identifying scars.

Was it a whale that hasn’t been seen since it was a calf? Did it need to be biopsy sampled? Has it been in the Bay of Fundy before? There was great data in just this one sighting. But the problem with not photographing this individual was much more basic: providing proof of the species. The fisheries were shut down due to the presence of our whale, and those affected by the closures were hungry for this proof.

A shakedown cruise becomes void of humor when you realize that you’ve missed a serious opportunity. Yes, we’ve heard about and experienced many unphotographed sightings before. It’s never ideal, and that awful, sinking feeling when your whale has spent… 25 minutes (?!) underwater will always make you feel like you are the one who missed that surfacing, regardless of the 360 degrees of horizon that is impossible for one person to cover alone. This sighting, however, will haunt me for a long time.

Read more stories from the 2018 Field Season!