Right Whale


Chris Slay
New England Aquarium

The northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is the most endangered of all the large whales with fewer than 350 animals left in the North Atlantic. On 01/01/96, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FL-DEP) sighted right whale #1707, about 20 miles northeast of Jacksonville, FL. Approximately 300' of line and a set of buoys were trailing behind this animal. Each year static fishing gear entangles right whales, sometimes fatally. Therefore, plans were made to "tag" this whale with a tracking device so that it could be relocated and hopefully disentangled. Such an effort would be especially worthwhile because #1707 is known to be a 9 year old female. In an extremely diminished population, there is no more valuable animal than a female entering her reproductive years.

The New England Aquarium's (NEA) right whale aerial survey crew sighted #1707 on 01/15/96 approximately 10 miles northeast of Jacksonville. We jumped on a local fishing boat and towed our rigid-hull inflatable to the coordinates the aerial survey crew provided. Once the whale was spotted we launched the 13' Zodiac and overtook the two lobster-pot buoys which were streaking through the water behind the whale. The buoys indicate that the whale entangled herself in New England waters. It was also apparent that the whale had a tight wrap of line around the entire girth of its body. The line across her back had begun to cut through the skin suggesting that the line might be cinched around her flippers. We snatched the trailing line from the water and quickly cut about 150' of it off the whale. To the remaining line we attached a VHF-radio transmitter which the Georgia Department of Natural resources (GA-DNR) had ingeniously modified for the occasion using a tag designed for tracking manatees.

The whale was then tracked on a daily basis by the FL-DEP. An experienced whale disentanglement team from the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod was put on alert but for more than a week sea conditions remained unsuitable for hands-on work with a 35 ton whale. On 01/17/96, #1707 was sighted at its southernmost recorded position, off Daytona Beach, FL. By 01/19/96 she had returned to the area where she was tagged and on 01/22/96 she had reached a position 30 miles east of Savannah, still tracking north. Bad conditions or not, it was obvious she was leaving our area. We would lose her if she continued north and headed out to sea. The modified manatee transmitter could not withstand the pressure of deep, offshore dives and the batteries were not expected to last much longer.

On 01/23/96, we descended on USCG station, Tybee Island, GA... a dozen frantic scientists with boats and gear in tow. We received a warm welcome from Chief Wilson and his crew, but despite their willingness to help the whale had outrun us. When the GA-DNR tracking plane located #1707 on 01/23, she was well north of Tybee Station's jurisdiction.

I scratched my head for a minute, then made a call to the U.S. Coast Guard, Charleston Group. Lieutenant Lance Rocks understood the situation immediately and set out to see what he could do to help us. Within an hour Lt. Rocks informed me that the 110' Cutter METOMPKIN was being diverted from exercises offshore to come to our aid. Needless to say we were extremely pleased. The forecast called for easterly winds in excess of 20 knots so no less a boat could get us to where we needed to be and deposit us in a suitable inflatable near the whale. I must state clearly that while I don't have intimate knowledge of the day to day routine for a large Coast Guard Command such as the Charleston Group, I realize it is no small matter to pull a 110' Cutter from her intended course. We were all deeply impressed with the Coast Guard's willingness to take such measures to help us with our mission. We cannot overstate our gratitude to Lt. Rocks, his commander Captain Pat Boyle and all those up the chain of command who made this effort possible.

We left the dock shortly after 0700 hours, 01/24/96. When we finally caught up with #1707, still hauling her burden, she was off of Bulls Bay, about 30 miles northeast of Charleston Harbor. The FL-DEP had sent a tracking plane up the coast and by their efforts we were led to the general vicinity of the whale. Barb Zoodsma, with the GA-DNR, began honing in on the signal from the flying bridge of the Cutter METOMPKIN. The wind was howling and the dark grey seas were running 6'-8'. A rain squall hit as the lobster-pot buoys popped-up off the bow. Then the whale surfaced, the spray from its exhalation blown flat across the tumultuous sea. As the squall passed I readied the new tag. It was equipped with a satellite transmitter designed to send signals for a minimum of 2 months, as well as a radio transmitter with a comparable life. "Bombproof" was the word going through my mind when I assembled the tag for this operation. Stormy Mayo, leader of the disentanglement team from the Center for Coastal Studies, readied the gear we would need to cut the existing tag free.

At 1307 hours, at approximately 30 55 x 079 11, the commanding officer of the METOMPKIN, CWO Cooper, gave the order to lower the boat. Stormy and I dropped into the inflatable with BMZ Shelton at the controls. By 1325 hours, Shelton had us running along side the lobster-pot buoys as well as Tom Mix ever rode up alongside a runaway horse. Stormy grabbed the line and fed it to me. I unclipped the old tag, tied on the new and heaved it overboard. At this time #1707 was dubbed METOMPKIN.

While it is unfortunate that sea conditions would not allow us to disentangle this whale, the information provided from tagging her may now give us this opportunity in the future. At the very least we have already learned a great deal more about right whale movements around Cape Hatteras than was previously known. None of this would have been possible without the support of the U.S. Coast Guard and the near heroic efforts of CWO Cooper and his crew.

The "Metompkin" Teaching Unit

"Metompkin", the right whale data
"Metompkin" Teaching Unit from Athena/NASA site.
The Story of "Metompkin's" Rescue.

"Metompkin" Sighting Updates

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