“Team August” bravely headed into the two weeks of survey of the Bay of Fundy with a dose of hope mixed with realistic expectations. Since May, only three individual right whales were reported in the entire Bay of Fundy region, and four weeks of survey throughout June and July turned up no right whale sightings; however, August was the month when the whales typically arrived in the area. Would Team August see any right whales? Our fingers and toes were crossed.

Our first survey day was on August 14, and it was a day of typical sightings (harbor porpoise, humpback whales, seals). The following day brought a huge surprise. While surveying close to Nova Scotia, we sighted the orca known as Old Thom. We have been lucky enough to see Old Thom a few times over the past seven years or so, but it still a real treat that never gets old. My favorite thing about observing an orca is the surfacing;  it’s so different from the species with which I’m familiar. The dorsal fin breaks the water first, and it looks like this shark fin that just keeps growing into a larger triangle until the head finally catches up. The dorsal fin of the orca is the largest of any cetacean; in an adult male like Old Thom, it can reach 6 feet tall! We wished we could have spent more time photographing him, but he had his own agenda and we had to continue on our survey.

Photographing a humpback whale
A humpback whale Is photographed. Photo: Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.
The orca
The orca Old Thom is sighted off Nova Scotia. Photo: Amy Knowlton, Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.

Surveys were also conducted on August 20 and 24, and we dealt with our fair share of unfavorable weather and unfavorable engine issues. Finally, on August 26, those most perfectly shaped flukes of the right whale appeared near a group of three humpbacks! A second right whale popped up with it, and in spite of the overcast gray day, we basked in the glory of their surface active group (SAG). Interestingly, these associated individuals were both females, Catalog #3650 (born in 2006) and #3790 (born in 2007).

North Atlantic right whales #3650 and #3790
North Atlantic right whales #3650 and #3790 are seen in a SAG. Photo: Amy Knowlton, Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.

A third whale approached, but did not join the pair. This individual was Zero (Catalog #3908), who was born in 2009. Zero was so named because she has a long, linear scar on her body which is like the long dash in American Morse Code that means zero. The name is perfect because her mother is named Morse! We were sad to see that Zero has new wounds from fishing gear entanglement, but grateful the injuries aren’t more severe.

New wounds from fishing gear entanglement are visible on a North Atlantic right whale.
New wounds from fishing gear entanglement are visible. Photo: Anne McGhie, Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.

Not long after going back on survey, we found our fourth right whale. I was very pleased to find that it was Catalog #2201, a male born in 1992 to Fermata. North Atlantic right whale #2201 is one of my favorites because he was one of the first whales I learned to identify on sight. He has a linear scar that breaks into two lines on the right side of his back, and a series of propeller cuts from a vessel further below it (although the propeller cuts are usually not visible from the boat).

North Atlantic right whale #2201
North Atlantic right whale #2201 is sighted. Photo: Johanna Anderson, Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.
Scars are seen on North Atlantic right whale #2201
Scars are seen on North Atlantic right whale #2201. Photo: Celia Jellison, Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ.

The next four hours of the survey were quiet, so we were again thrilled to find one more individual about 2 p.m. thanks to colleague Chris Slay, who was on the water as well. Catalog #3991, a female born in 2009, is a loyal visitor to the Bay of Fundy. She was here in 2017 and 2018, when few other right whales were in the area.

Colleagues from the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station photographed three additional North Atlantic right whales that day further north of our survey area. With eight right whales in the bay, it was painful to know that the first day we saw our target species was also our last survey day of August. We would have to wait almost two weeks to see if they would stay into September and if any other whales had joined them.

The Nereid waits for North Atlantic right whale #3991 to surface
The Nereid waits for #3991 to surface. Photo: Chris Slay
North Atlantic right whale #3391
North Atlantic right whale #3991 is sighted as the weather began to turn. Photo: Chris Slay



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.