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The Thorne lab has been diligently searching the New York Bight for humpback whales since mid-May. After a few days of wishfully scanning the horizon, we finally had three epic survey days filled with humpback whales! We found our first whales very close to shore (within ~2 miles of the coast) and they were lunge feeding on schools of fish that were aggregating at the surface. Based on the results of our previous field seasons, we were expecting these animals to be young whales based on their size, and they were among the smallest whales we’ve seen yet. Our next two days were filled with large whales far from shore (~30-40 miles from the coast). On our second day, we saw a huge feeding frenzy: humpbacks and common dolphins were in the middle of the group, and shearwaters, storm petrels, and giant fin whales were circling the outside of the group. The humpback whales were lunging out of the water with their mouths open through huge schools of prey while the fin whales were lunging on their sides just at the surface of the water. When we think about how large these animals are (maximum size is ~17-20m) and how much small prey (less than 0.5m in length) they need to eat, and then consider the fact that there were 7 massive whales eating from the same group of prey, it really puts into perspective how much prey was available at this location that day.

A three-species photo! Common dolphins in the foreground, a lunge feeding fin whale in the middle, and a humpback whale surfacing in the background! Note: This photo was taken on a crop sensor with a 150-600mm camera.

 

Humpback whales feeding at the surface

This is our third field season, and we have developed a streamlined process for recording data. This is particularly useful because we are adhering to strict social distancing restrictions set in place by our COVID-19 field work protocol and because of these restrictions, there can only be two scientists on board! Julia and Ellie have honed their skills amidst this multi-tasking mayhem. When we sight whales, Ellie notes the sighting on the laptop and we begin taking photos while also directing the captain where to navigate and how to safely execute the required movements around groups of large whales. Once we are close enough, Julia sets up the drone and launches it. While she is flying, Ellie is taking photos, taking notes, and we both coordinate closely with the captain. Snacks are key when we’ve finished a sighting (goldfish for Julia, pretzel rods for Ellie) and lots of hydration! When we return to the dock, we wipe down all equipment, and download and back up our data. This is a reminder to those reading: go back up your computer if you haven’t done it recently!!

Julia and Ellie searching for whales and social distancing

We’ll be back with more updates as our season progresses…