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Entry for July 26, 2007

Some new crew members to hear from today. Scott starts off with some analysis on "The Attack of Moby P," pictures of the two crews (scientific and expedition vessel), and thoughts on whale scat nomenclature. Then Mauricio Handler has a harrowing account of his own Moby P encounter, and Scott Baker, Glenn Dunshea and Simon Childerhouse give us an overview of the science that's been done so far.

Scott Kraus:

Quote of Note:

"As the whale was stalking me, I'm thinking, I'm just glad they don't have teeth." B. Skerry (re Moby P)

There was scientific discussion about Brian getting scat upon by a right whale (the infamous Moby P) yesterday. First, its very interesting, as we didn't know if right whales fed in these waters. However, this observation suggests that it must have been eating within a day or two, and the color (reddish brown) suggested krill. There are lobster krill in these waters (Munida gregaria) and they certainly would be edible, but in most right whale populations, fasting is the norm in their calving grounds.

Its also a challenge to describe whale scat in a terminology that is both accurate and appropriate for general readership. The collective thinking resulted in exkrillment (Murray), whump(Brian), and whoop(Glenn). In the future the Websters entry will read: Whoop (noun): the exkrillment of whales. Whump (verb): to produce a whoop. (yes, it is possible that this boat has been away from civilization too long).

Early this morning, I awoke to the underwater sounds of a courtship group calling and singing through the hull. So at 5 a.m., Captain Steve and I were thrashing around the bridge with various wires, jacks, pre-amps, and computers trying to figure out how to direct record underwater sounds. We have two digital tape recorders, but the conditions haven't been optimal for their use. Eventually we figured it out, but by then the courtship group had dispersed, and all we heard we some long-distance low frequency groans. More attempts will follow.

Attached are two images of the crew, photographers, writers, and science teams aboard the Evohe.

The science/national geographic team (top photo), from left to right: Doug Chadwick (National Geographic), Scott Kraus (New England Aquarium), Scott Baker (Oregon State University and University of Auckland), Glenn Dunshea (University of Tasmania) Brian Skerry (National Geographic), Roz Rolland (New England Aquarium), Mauricio Handler (National Geographic); kneeling in front: Simon Childerhouse (University of Otago).

The vessel crew (second photo), from left to right: Matt Taylor, Captain Steve Kafka, Kelly McGrath, and Murray Watson; kneeling in front: Allison Paulin.

As I send this, there is snow on the mountain tops. Calm winds, cold temps, fair weather promised for tomorrow.

In the Aucklands,

Scott Kraus

Mauricio Handler:

The Return of Moby P

I knelt motionless in the 40 degree water waiting patiently with Brian for a right whale to approach. It did not take long before one showed up. I quickly positioned myself between Brian and the incoming giant in an effort to be part of the scene - showing both the human presence and scale. The goliath 30 ton creature swam past me silently, once, then twice. Its passing caused water to flow irregularly all around me in a wild vortex.

Re-positioning myself once again for a third pass, I waited.

Brian motioned to me, removed his regulator from his mouth and proceeded to scream out "its Moby"! After a moment of silence I analyzed what he had just said. It was clear that my first encounter with Right Whales underwater would not go down easily. Moby P was the nickname of a sub-adult whale he had encountered on two previous dives. A teenager with an attitude.

In the earlier dives Moby harassed Brian underwater, thrashing its fluke back and forth, sometimes too close for comfort. He would also flair out his pectoral fins and contort its body, after inspecting Brian carefully with his large eye and fixating stare. I waited for Moby to return. It was my time to encounter the beast. Twice I hit the bottom of the shallow sandy bay as I inadvertently dug myself a trench where I could hide. Brian laughed at my cowering as I had teased him days earlier on a similar event.

Scott B, Simon and Glenn:

Awakened in Laurie Harbor to a strong breeze, and decided to move back to Erebus Bay for calmer seas. It's cold today. The biopsy team went off early and had another successful day (see posting by the team below). They also came back with photographs of the first ship-struck right whale recorded in this population. Three large cuts indicate a propeller struck the whale in the right shoulder - it appears to be fully healed, and the whale is lucky to have survived. Brian and Mauricio went into the water with whales in Erebus, and had another encounter with an excessively curious whale, as described in the second posting by Mauricio below.

The Auckland Island right whales, past, present and future

Despite high winds and squally rain (and occasional snow), the genetics and photo-identification team (Simon, Glenn and Scott B) has had great success over the last week. We have now collected 140 genetic samples using our Paxarms biopsy system (a modified veterinary capture rifle that fires a small stainless-steel dart tethered to a fishing line) and about the same number of individual identification photographs (photo-IDs). This is nearly as many as collected during the entire 2006 expedition lead by Simon, Glenn and Murdoch Vant (from the University of Auckland). The skin biopsy sample is about the diameter of a pencil and about an inch long, but it provides important insight into the past and present abundance of this population.

Our primary goal is to calculate a revised estimate of abundance for this remote population using capture-recapture analysis of DNA profiles (individual-specific genotypes) and individual identification photographs. A secondary goal is to measure the genetic diversity of the Auckland Island population and improve our understanding of the exploitation 'bottleneck' that resulted from the 19th century whaling and the 20th century illegal Soviet whaling. Finally, the samples will also be used by Glenn to investigate the potential for aging whales by measuring the length of the telomeres (long stretches of repeated DNA found at the end of chromosomes). In some species, the telomeres 'wind down', or shorten in length, as an individual ages. If successful, this method would provide a tremendous advance in our understanding of the longevity of whales and the age structure of whale populations.

The results from the current expedition (the second in a planned three-year survey) will be compared to the initial description of this population conducted from 1995 to 1998 by Nathalie Patenaude, Simon, Scott B. and Nick Gales (now at the Australian Centre for Applied Marine Mammal Science and one of Glenn's supervisors). Using genetic samples and individual identification photographs from those earlier surveys, Nathalie estimated the size of the population to be about 900 individuals in 1998. It is possible that the population could have doubled in the decade since that time. Establishing the rate of this increase will allow us to predict the time to full recovery of the New Zealand population (likely to be another 50-100 years). Nathalie and Scott B also found that the Auckland Island right whale population is very low in mitochondrial DNA diversity (genetic material inherited only from mothers), consistent with a decline to perhaps only a few dozen mature females early in the 20th century. Unlike abundance, however, genetic diversity, once lost, will take thousands of generations, or hundreds of thousands of years, to recover.