Monday, August 24, 2009

Hot Spot

Our read of the weather was right on today. We had excellent conditions in the morning, workable weather in the middle of the day, and strong winds by mid-afternoon. As has been the case every day we have been in beaked whale areas with suitable sea conditions, we saw many animals today. If you look closely at the picture here you can see the three different sizes of binoculars we use to monitor visually at different distances. Initially we were spotting just single animals, who are very difficult to tag relative to groups, and we kept moving. Soon, however we came into an area with many different groups.

It was difficult to track who was who and how many groups there were because it seemed very likely that some of the groups were splitting apart and re-forming in different configurations while traveling in the same general direction. Some of these groups had calves, but generally speaking we were seeing more large and workable animals. With the excellent conditions, we soon got a good read on a group of four animals without calves. We followed them through several surface intervals and "shallow" dives and had a good bearing on their direction. The tag team had two close approaches to within about 10m of the animals (the picture here is of the focal group during one of these approaches), but was not able to attach one of the DTags to the animals. We continued to track them as they went into a long, deep foraging dive and began producing echolocation clicks, using our listening assets. As yesterday, with the integrated information on bearing from the visual teams and acoustic bearings from the listening arrays, we felt quite confident that we maintained them on our port side and had a probable zone where they would resurface. Also like yesterday, however, as we positioned ourselves like this and were ready, the winds came up quite rapidly to 20 knots and we were forced to break off the search. We continued to search for pilot whales in the marginal conditions and ultimately found a moderate size group - using acoustic cues since the wind caused poor visibility. However, there were small calves in their groups and both that and the sea state would have prevented a CEE with them as well, so we did not attach pilot whale tags.

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks poor with strong winds from the west; Wednesday may offer us another window of calm as the winds shift back to the east. We will, of course, be ready to go tomorrow if the forecast is incorrect, but if we cannot look for beaked whales visually, we intend to conduct acoustic surveys over what looks to be an interesting seamount and submarine canyon area that has not been extensively explored. Once we have good conditions again, we will likely return to the area where we worked today. Even accounting for likely re-sighted animals, a conservative estimate of the number of individual Cuvier's beaked whales we saw is about 20 within about a 60-square-mile patch of ocean -- quite a high density for our newest "hot spot".