This blog post is the second of four updates on the recent sighting of the rare and endangered North Pacific right whale. Read the first update here.
“All eyes on deck!” The crew could sense how important a sighting this was, and did everything they could so that we didn’t lose track of the whale. The whale surfaced erratically, with seemingly no pattern in its timing or direction. If it wasn’t for all of us on deck and the great skill of the crew in maneuvering the vessel, we may have lost the whale in the poor conditions.
The seas were two to three metres high with white caps – not ideal for launching the zodiac, but we launched to try to get better photos and to make an acoustic recording. With swells that big, we couldn’t keep track of the whale from the zodiac, so we relied on the crew of the ship to talk us in until we could see it.
Over the course of two hours, we were able to acquire good quality photos of both sides of the head and flank and dorsal surface of the flukes. We tried making an acoustic recording of the whale, hoping to hear “up” or “gunshot” calls stereotypical of right whales, but the whale was not vocalizing. Considering the whale was still being very erratic, and feeling as though we’d accomplished what we could on the water in those conditions, we went back to the ship to continue observing the whale.
Up to this point, the whale was diving unpredictably, making long dives, surfacing in unpredictable locations but staying in the same general area. But all of a sudden, its behaviour changed. The whale slowed right down, stayed near the surface, opened its jaws, and began to feed. The whale was skim feeding, a form of feeding where the animal plows through the water with its mouth open, filtering plankton from the water column with long plates of baleen hanging from the roof of its mouth. It continued to feed for the next two hours, powerfully thrusting its large tail leaving large footprints on the surface and its rostrum eerily moving along above the water. We maneuvered in behind the whale as it fed, dragged a fine meshed net through one of the whale’s footprints and found that copepods were abundant. Copepods, a type of crustacean zooplankton, are known to be right whales’ preferred prey.
The whale was very focused on feeding and seemed quite undisturbed by our presence. The whale fed like this for two more hours, until falling daylight announced that it was time for us to leave in order to get to our anchorage for the night. Thinking that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we left the whale.
Guest blog post by James Pilkington, DFO Cetacean Research Program (CRP)