Dr. Holly Fearnbach and colleagues from Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC/NOAA) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) recently finished a second year of a study to assess the health of North Atlantic Right whales using an unmanned aircraft in Cape Cod Bay. They were joined by colleagues from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC/NOAA) and the New England Aquarium (NEAQ). In total, they flew 71 fights over 31 individual whales and collected 17 blow samples. These blow samples will be analyzed at WHOI to describe the respiratory microbiome communities of this endangered population and aerial images will be measured by SWFSC to assess changes in growth and body condition of known individuals.
Right whales can be individually identified by the callosity patterns on their head and all aerial images taken during these efforts are matched to the NEAQ photo-id catalog. Photo analysis is currently underway to match the aerial images collected this year to the 33 whales photographed/measured in 2016 (3 matches so far) and the 94 whales photographed/measured by SWFSC using a manned aircraft in 2000- 2002 (6 matches so far) to evaluate changes in condition and patterns of growth.