I Think I Saw a Right Whale! Who Should I Call?

North Atlantic Right Whales are critically endangered. We chat with Tim Cole and Lieutenant Christopher Licitra from NOAA Fisheries about efforts to identify, track, and conserve this fragile population.


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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we survey for answers to the most elusive questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And if you've ever embarked on a whale watch from Boston, you may have seen humpback whales or fin whales after a short cruise out of the harbor. A much more rare sighting is the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. You may have seen the news last week that Cape Cod Canal was closed to boat traffic for about 24 hours after two right whales were spotted swimming along the waterway. A group of visitors asked us: how do scientists keep tabs on this population? And what should you do if you're lucky enough to spot a right whale? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, is one of many groups that are working hard to prevent the extinction of right whales. Today I'll talk with two members of the NOAA team who participate in aerial surveys which locate and even identify right whales in order to protect this delicate population. First, I chatted with Tim Cole, a NOAA biologist who is the team lead for the North Atlantic Right Whale Aerial Surveys. Tim, thanks so much for joining me today.

TIM: Yeah, my pleasure.

ERIC: Why don't we start some background on the whales themselves. How big are these whales? Where can you find them? That kind of thing.

TIM: There's about 350 right whales, or fewer than 350 right whales left now in the North Atlantic. They get to be about 50 feet long and about 50 tons. To put that in perspective, it's about of the weight of three full school buses. They range along the coast in Canada, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland, all the way down to Florida on the US coast. Sometimes they're found further afield in the Gulf of Mexico, on the west coast of Florida. And also sometimes they show up in strange places like Norway or the Azores. They get around.

ERIC: Now 350, that's a really low number. And I imagine that that number has been going down for a couple hundred years. What are the major threats that have been ongoing and historic to the whales.

TIM: The namesake of right whales was because they were the right whale to hunt. They had a couple of attributes that made them highly desirable for harvesting. One is they had very thick blubber, so they provide a lot of oil. They also have very long baleen and the baleen is is made of a keratin like our fingernails, and basically was the plastics of the day. So they were very valuable. And they were hunted extensively in Europe, and they've been extirpated, essentially from the eastern North Atlantic. So this is a remnant population on the western North Atlantic.

ERIC: So we're trying to conserve them and make sure that this population doesn't completely disappear. And the program we're talking about today is trying to sight them from an airplane. So why is sighting these whales, and knowing where they are, important?

TIM: We're basically trying to identify where right whales are so that we can regulate the activities in that area to try to reduce the impacts to right whales. So the primary impacts to right whales are from boat traffic. Collisions between whales and ships is a major cause of mortality for right whales, and then entanglement in commercial fishing gear. So our job with aerial surveys basically is to track where the whales are. And also try to identify any hotspots where we have, you know, aggregations of right whales, because that represents a pretty high level of risk.

ERIC: So it's important to know where the whales are. And your team accomplishes that using an airplane. Can you talk about how that program started and how the flights work.

TIM: I've been involved with the aerial surveys for right whales with NOAA for about 20 years. We started off working pretty much extensively with the Coast Guard using some of their platforms, but they often had to go off for search and rescue missions. So you just became part of the Coast Guard crew at that point. But the Coast Guard now contributes in part to providing NOAA a Twin Otter, which is the platform we've been using for a long time. It's an optimal platform, it has about six hours endurance, 600 mile range. In the back, we have two observers, one on each side of the plane, and they look outside of these bubble windows. We fly sort of systematic track lines. And when we sight right whales will break from the track and circle over the whale and take photographs.

ERIC: We hear sometimes about the amazing instrumentation that we get. We talked to the hurricane hunters and they have you know, dropsondes where they get all this information that they drop out of the plane. And these aerial surveys sound kind of like you just stick your head out the window of the airplane and look for whales. Do you have to get that certain skill to be able to tell from way up high, like, that's a whale and that's a boat and that's the kind of whale that we're not looking for. And that's the right whale, let's go circle around that.

TIM: We're pretty low tech in that way. But we have very sharp observers. You need to have good eyes, really good eyes. And it is a real skill to identify a whale at, you know, a mile or two away. And then of course to identify it to species.

ERIC: Now you're not just getting an idea of where right whales are in general, you can identify and track individual whales. So how do you tell one right whale from another, especially from a plane?

TIM: Right whales have what are called callosity. There are white patches on the head. And they're unique to each individual. And we can use those to identify who we saw on any particular flight. The New England Aquarium in Boston has a catalogue of all the right whales that have ever been photographed. We work with them, and they compare our photographs to their catalog to see who we saw on any given flight. And that's also how we track the population. We have basically a census of how many of the individuals are left each year. And if they haven't been seen for a while, then you know, over time, it becomes more likely that they're no longer around. But it's interesting too, because the aquarium has used that catalog to sort of piece together sighting histories of animals. And each animal has a very unique sort of pattern that it follows. Some like certain areas more than others.

ERIC: If you can track the individuals that closely, do you see patterns start to emerge, where you see lots of whales changing their behavior at the same time?

TIM: Starting about 2010 to 2013, with changes in the currents and the oceanic temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, we started seeing big shifts in the distributions of right whales. And that's where the plane really became a key tool for us to sort of explore other areas to see where these whales might be going now, because we stopped seeing them in some areas that we had seen them in years past. But through our surveys, we discovered a lot of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence up in Canada, a lot of the same individuals that were using the Bay of Fundy. So we know they basically displaced from the Bay of Fundy and started visiting this new region, which didn't have any real protections in place. So there was a large number of right whale mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. And we worked a lot with the Canadians. And they were very proactive in establishing new management stuff using some of our data. And they also had planes, too. But essentially, they have now instituted some pretty drastic regulations to reduce the mortality of right whales in the area.

ERIC: Do you have any outstanding questions about right whale populations that the aerial surveys could help answering?

TIM: One of the things that we are trying to figure out now is where some of the mortality might be occurring. It's a big ocean out there. So it's hard to track down and and it's hard to find, you know, one right whale, it's a needle in a haystack. So we rely a lot on reports from the public, you know, from mariners, and the Coast Guard to help us sort of get more eyes out on the water so we can identify where whales are and where some of that mortality is happening.

ERIC: So it sounds like the public can help a lot, pretty directly, with this effort. If one of our listeners is off the coast on a boat somewhere and they think they see a right whale, what should they do? Who should they call?

TIM: We appreciate all reports from the public because they can be a lead for us to, you know, help direct surveys, but we often get reports of other whale species that we're not looking for. So looking online and learning, you know, what right whales look like. And there's also a lot of good resources to answer questions about right whales there too. But if you are out on the water and you see a right whale, there's a couple of things you can do. There's an app called Whale Alert. And you can use that to report sightings. Whale Alert also has some resources there to help you identify species. But you can also call the Coast Guard and report the sighting. We work pretty closely with the Coast Guard and they'll relay sightings to us. And we'll follow up. We'll usually call people back and ask them a few questions just to make sure it was a right whale or not. And of course we're happy to answer any of their questions too. And also to thank them for making the report. People's participation in right whale conservation is really important. They can make a difference.

ERIC: Tim, thanks so much for telling us about the aerial survey program and good luck spotting those whales.

TIM: Sure thing, Eric. Yeah, no problem.

ERIC: I also had an opportunity to talk with Lieutenant Chris Licitra, a NOAA Corps officer and a pilot of the Twin Otter aircraft used in the aerial survey program. Chris, thanks for joining me on Pulsar to talk about flying these planes.

CHRIS: Happy to be here.

ERIC: The missions that fly out of Cape Cod fly a Twin Otter. So is there any particular reason why that plane is used for these missions?

CHRIS: Yeah, it's an extremely versatile aircraft, the de Havilland Twin Otter. Our motto flying that aircraft is "low and slow and good to go". So it has an extended range of anywhere from four to six hours. The airspeed that it flies that is ideal for surveying marine mammals, right around 100 knots ground speed, and we can be stable at low altitudes as well. So it makes it ideal for marine mammal surveys.

ERIC: One thing that I couldn't really take a guess on is what kind of altitude you're flying at. Because the closer you are to the water, the easier it is to be able to identify and spot whale, but the less visibility you have. If you're up a mile in the air, then you can see much more of the ocean, but it might be hard to distinguish what's a whale, and what's a boat, and what's just a wave. So what's the altitude? Do you switch it up? Or do you have a typical best, like, here's where we are for our scan.

CHRIS: We tend to be about 1,000 feet above the water, but we can be as low as we need to be.

ERIC: So we also heard that one of the most important things is to not just track where the whales are, but to identify them, to be able to get an idea of the population and things like that. So when you do spot a whale, or a group of whales, what happens then? Can you deviate from the flight plan and go in for a closer look, or follow them for a while to see what direction they're moving?

CHRIS: Whale spotting is the best part of the job, by far, especially the target species that we're looking for, which is, in this case, Atlantic right whales. So when we spot a whale, the observer would say, you know, break right or break left from our track line. And the copilot will put a marker down in our GPS, saying that this is where we're leaving the line. And the pilot will do a steep turn to left or right and track that species. And as soon as we're on top of it, we tend to do steep left turns to be able to photograph it, so we can actually get a record of that species there. So the pilot is going to maintain a 45-degree-bank turn at about 100 knots. And we'll keep that bank so that the scientists can accurately identify the species. They're really amazing with the names, they can say, oh, that's Whiskey Foxtrot, or that's Alpha Zero, or something like that. They have very fun names. And it's always great for the pilots to kind of participate in the excitement of finding a long lost mammal that they haven't seen in a while. It's like an old friend visiting, kind of thing. And we'll be on there anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, depending on what the whales are doing. Sometimes they're feeding, sometimes they're in a SAG, sometimes they're just kind of hanging out at the surface. And sometimes they're misbehaving. And we have to continually circle for a while until they breach again, because sometimes they dive down deep and we didn't get a great photo of it or great pass initially. So the scientists will have the pilots continue circling for however long the whale stays down there until it wants to say hello again.

ERIC: So you mentioned a couple of the other marine mammal missions. Do you fly those as well, trying to spot other kinds of animals? Can you talk a little bit about that?

CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. There's a mission called SEAMAPS, we fly a little bit lower, about 800 feet, and we're looking for all marine mammal species. There's turtle surveys. I haven't participated in a turtle survey. But I do see plenty of turtles from the air when we're doing the marine mammal surveys. I participated in Steller sea lion survey up the Alaskan coastline. That was exciting because in Alaska, that topography is much different, more canyons that we are surveying, and the sea lions, the best way to photograph them is when they're hauled out, or they're kind of sunbathing on the beaches. And these beaches in Alaska are right up next to cliffs. So we have to get, safely of course, close to the ideal picture angle. So we get pretty close to the marine mammals and sometimes the terrain, but we always maintain safety in that. And we always have an exit.

ERIC: How did you end up becoming a pilot? And then doing these marine mammal surveys? Is it something where you kind of always liked whales? Or did you become a pilot and see what kind of different opportunities were out there? Like, what's your story?

CHRIS: I got my private pilot license right out of high school at a community college in New Jersey called Mercer County Community College, it has a pretty fantastic flight program. But back then, in the early 2010s, there wasn't a lot of job opportunities for pilots. So I got my degree in environmental planning, because I always had an interest in science, specifically charting and mapping. So I have a background in GIS, geographic information systems. And when you have a background in GIS, you're always kind of using aerial data. It just so happened that at NOAA are these NOAA pilots, doing a lot of coastal mapping missions, and I was working with a lot of NOAA-collected aerial photography. And I'm like thinking to myself, sitting in front of a computer, it would be really cool if I was the guy collecting this information. I don't know how I'm gonna do it. But it'd be really nice to be able to work with NOAA maybe one day. And then about five or six years later, I joined the NOAA Corps and I became a pilot. I eventually got into the aviation program. And I became that individual that was participating in these missions, doing the exact same data collection that I was talking about and using in my own research back in when I was in university.

ERIC: Well, that's really neat that you kind of came full circle from using the data to flying in the planes that collect it. Chris, thanks so much for telling us all about what goes into piloting these aerial surveys.

CHRIS: Thanks so much for asking.

ERIC: On your next visit to the Museum of Science, stop by the Current Science and Technology Stage. Our Science Snapshot presentations cover the latest headlines. And to learn more about conserving threatened species while you're home, you can visit And listen to our previous episodes on the endangered birds of Hawaii and the delicate worldwide populations of pollinators. Until next time, keep asking questions.

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