Hudson Canyon Attracts North Atlantic Right Whales

Hudson Canyon Attracts North Atlantic Right Whales

Opportunistic sightings of endangered North Atlantic right whales in unexpected places or times of year are always interesting. It raises the questions of who, what, when, where and why? We—the Northeast Large Whale Aerial Survey team—received a report of at least five right whales near Hudson Canyon on Memorial Day weekend. We knew we wanted to fly a survey in that area to get some answers.

Hudson Canyon, the largest known ocean canyon off the U.S. East Coast, is nearly 100 miles east of New Jersey. It’s currently under consideration for a national marine sanctuary designation because of its rich biodiversity. However, right whale usage of this canyon and the rest of the mid-Atlantic is poorly understood, making our survey of this area even more important.

Whale feces appears as an orangish cloud just above this whale’s peduncle and fluke. The team noted several whales actively defecating during their May 29 survey in the Hudson Canyon area. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paul Nagelkirk

We headed to survey the Hudson Canyon aboard NOAA’s Twin Otter plane on May 29. On our second track we hit the jackpot! We circled right whale after right whale, and by the end of the survey we had documented 35 right whales. One of these was documented, but not photographed. It was like playing the game “whack-a-mole” trying to photograph the whales at the surface. The whales were all diving. We saw whale feces floating at the surface, suggesting that they were feeding in this area.

We returned on June 1 to survey Hudson Canyon again. We documented 27 individuals during this survey; 16 of them were the same individuals that we documented on May 29. That means that at least 45 right whales—more than 12 percent of the population—were in the Hudson Canyon area during that 3-day span.

A North Atlantic right whale dives down below the surface of the water around Hudson Canyon during the May 29 aerial survey flight. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paul Nagelkirk

We’re especially familiar with many of the 45 individuals we observed, having seen the same individuals over many years and because more than two-thirds of them were in the waters off Massachusetts this past winter and spring! This tells us that instead of heading northeast to the summer feeding grounds of Bay of Fundy or Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada, these animals left New England and went southwest. Something we did not expect.

One right whale, #2410 (known as Bowtie), is a favorite because of a notable bowtie-shaped scar on his back and big white chin. This adult male is at least 30 years old, and we saw him in February in the Great South Channel and both days of our Hudson Canyon surveys. Another fun sighting was #3845, or Mogul, who is also an adult male. We saw him during both of our Hudson Canyon survey days and before that our colleagues at Center for Coastal Studies documented him in Cape Cod Bay intermittently February through April. He’s particularly well-known because of his excursions to FranceIceland, and Newfoundland.

Every right whale sighting is important. The initial reports in Hudson Canyon let us follow up and learn which whales were using the area and what they were doing. We still do not know why the right whales have chosen to feed in Hudson Canyon this year.