Last week, the Right Whale Research team began its 39th season of right whale surveys in the Bay of Fundy.

While stationed in Lubec, Maine, the team will do fieldwork in two-week sessions over the course of four months aboard our trusty research vessel Nereid. After a marathon of tasks, including packing and unpacking gear, traveling cross country, cleaning the field station, grocery shopping, and picking up the Nereid from the boat yard (just to name a few), the first team of five was able to conduct a survey in good weather on June 18. The area they covered in the Bay appeared to be quiet, with one fin whale sighting and few birds. It will be interesting to see how later surveys compare!

Organizing camera equipment before heading into the field.

While the Nereid team was out on the water, three additional team members drove up to Lubec to join them for a two-day disentanglement training on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Freeing animals from entangling fishing gear is extremely dangerous work that must be done by trained specialists, and we were fortunate to have the Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT) teach us some skills that will be helpful to them and other trained responders. Our crew’s main goal is to feel comfortable attaching a buoy equipped with satellite telemetry, which relays position of the animal, to the entangling gear on a whale so that CWRT can relocate the whale for disentanglement.

Learning about control lines and grapples. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL.
Robert shows how to tie an anchor hitch on a grapple. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL.
A cutting grapple (but not a tool in our kit, don't worry Mom!). Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL.

The first day of training was classroom based, and we learned how various pieces of equipment are used. There are many types of knives, grapples (a device with several hooks, attached to a rope), and carabineers that apply in different situations. It takes an experienced person to know when to use what. Our team practiced throwing a grapple attached to a control line at targets on the lawn.

Target practice! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL.

The next day, the Nereid crew got to see Scamper, the new CWRT response boat. This beautiful boat is named after Joe Howlett, the co-founder of CWRT who lost his life after successfully disentangling a right whale in 2017. Members of the CWRT – Mackie, Robert, Scott, and Moe – took a good look at the Nereid to determine what the safest, most practical setup would be for us. There are several things to take into consideration, such as points where a rope could get snagged and the boat’s maneuverability in reverse gear to get out of the danger zone.

Getting things set up on the Nereid. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL
Mackie stands on the bow to check the length of the control line. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, ACCOL

Once a plan was determined, the group split into two groups and we got underway. Scamper towed a buoy to mimic the line entangling a whale, and members of CWRT worked with some of the Nereid team to show how they would attach the control line, with the grapple on one end and a buoy (to represent the satellite telemetry buoy) on the other. Mackie stood on the bow of the Nereid and expertly launched the grapple, throwing it across Scamper’s “entangling line,” after which Robert made sure the grapple snagged the line by giving it a firm tug. Just like that, our hypothetical telemetry buoy was attached to our hypothetical entangled whale. We knew we’d need a lot of practice to make it look that simple.

Mackie lobs the grapple over the “entangling line.” Photo: Anne McGhie, ACCOL.
Debriefing about the team’s performance. Photo: Anne McGhie, ACCOL.
Brigid throws the grapple from the Nereid. Photo: Anne McGhie, ACCOL.

After the CWRT team parted ways with us, Nereid stayed out so we could take turns throwing the grapple from the bow. We are better prepared than we have been in a while, and feel more comfortable with the idea of approaching an entangled whale for reasons other than documentation and standing by. We hope we will never have to use these skills, but the sad reality is that we do encounter entangled right whales during our surveys. Thank you to the members of CWRT for giving us your time and knowledge, and for all you do to help free entangled animals. Here’s to a safe summer on the water.

This work is made possible in part by the generosity of Irving Oil, lead sponsor of the New England Aquarium’s North Atlantic Right Whale Research Program.