North Atlantic Right Whale Diving and Foraging Behavior in the Western Gulf of Maine

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Right whale surfacing with archival tag attached to its back via a suction cup.

Suction-cup attached archival tag with sensors to measure the depth, pitch, and roll of a whale.

Profiling instrument package used to measure a variety of oceanographic parameters near tagged whales, including temperature, salinity, fluorescence, and copepod abundance.

Principal Investigator:  Mark Baumgartner (WHOI Biology)

Collaborators: Fred Wenzel (NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center)

North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are seriously endangered; only several hundred individuals remain in the entire popluation.  Fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes are major sources of mortality for North Atlantic right whales that are clearly hindering recovery of this population.  Mitigation efforts are currently limited because of gaps in our knowledge about how right whales interact with fishing gear and ships.  An understanding of how right whales use the water column is sorely needed to promote recovery of right whales while minimizing impacts to important industries.  In particular, characterization of how right whales dive, to what depths they dive, and why they frequent particular depths will aid in efforts to develop whale-safe fishing practices and to help model risks posed by ships.

The objectives of this project are (1) to quantitatively characterize right whale diving and foraging behavior in the western Gulf of Maine and (2) to investigate the oceanographic conditions that influence right whale diving and foraging behavior, including the physical and biological processes that promote thin, exploitable layers of the whales’ copepod prey.  We  will accomplish these objectives by attaching instrumentation to right whales for relatively short periods of time (1-3 hours) and intensively sampling both prey distribution and oceanographic conditions near the tagged whales.  Tags are deployed from a small rigid-hulled inflatable boat using a 27 ft. telescoping pole.  Each tag consists of a time depth recorder, pitch and roll sensors, an acoustic transmitter, a radio transmitter, foam floatation, and a suction cup.  The suction cup is capped with a zinc foil plug that corrodes after 1-3 hours causing the suction cup to detach from the whale.  The acoustic and radio transmitters facilitate tracking the whale and recovering the tag once it has detached.  Environmental sampling in proximity to tagged whales is conducted with a vertical profiling instrument package consisting of a conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) profiler, fluorometer, optical plankton counter (OPC), and a video plankton recorder (VPR).

By examining the diving behavior of the tagged whales in the context of the physical structure of the water column and the distribution of both phytoplankton and zooplankton, we will be able to characterize the physical and biological processes that influence the vertical distribution of copepods and, in turn, the foraging behavior of the whales.  Some of these factors include the bottom mixed layer, surface mixing, pycnocline strength, phytoplankton thin layers, and zooplankton behavior.

Support for this project provided by the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Consortium, Office of Naval Research Marine Mammals and Biology Program, and the WHOI Ocean Life Institute Right Whale Initiative.

Publications and Presentations
Baumgartner, M.F. and F.W. Wenzel. 2008. Springtime foraging ecology of North Atlantic right whales. Ocean Sciences Meeting. American Geophysical Union and American Society of Limnology and Oceanography. Orlando, Florida. March 2-7, 2008.

Baumgartner, M.F. and F. Wenzel.  2005.  Observations of near-bottom foraging by right whales in the Great South Channel. Right Whale Consortium Meeting.  New Bedford, Massachusetts.  November 2-3, 2005.


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Last updated April 18, 2011
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