Posted on January 27, 2021
In the early morning of 13 January, a team of biologists from HDR and NAVFAC Atlantic departed Rudee Inlet for a U.S. Navy-funded large whale survey east of Virginia Beach. Shortly after sunrise, the team began searching for whales. It didn’t take long before the silhouette of large dark backs were seen on the horizon, approximately 25 miles offshore near the Dominion Energy wind turbines. As we approached closer, each time they surfaced it became more and more clear that these weren’t one of the more common species of whales usually encountered during our surveys. They did not have any dorsal fins nor a rounded dorsal hump when they rolled at the surface. Once we saw the shape of their pectoral fins when they rolled on their sides, it became very clear that these were in fact critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The United States Coast Guard was immediately notified so that a warning could be issued for mariners to be on the lookout. The vessel remained at a safe distance while the team took photographs of the three individuals, trying to get clear images of the callosities on their head; the pattern of which are unique to each individual and can be referenced to an extensive catalogue curated by the New England Aquarium to identify specific known individuals. Our research team is also permitted to fly a drone and was able use this tool to further assist with collecting identification images of each individual, look for entanglement in fishing gear, assess their behavior, and collect data on the size of each whale.
Upon returning to shore, the images were shared with regulators and researchers to confirm the identification of the whales. Katie Jackson of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Monica Zani of the New England Aquarium were able to provide IDs and life history information. The three individuals were all identified as males, #2142, #3821, and #4523, born in 1991, 2008, and 2015, respectively. A ‘Dynamic Management Area’ was subsequently designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide additional protection to the area that these whales were seen.
This project is led by researchers at HDR, funded by U.S. Fleet Forces Command, and managed by Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic as part of the U.S. Navy’s marine species monitoring program.