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Cetacean Assessment & Ecology Program

PRIEST (Pacific Right Whale Evaluation Study) July–August, 2008

Figure 1, PRIEST map, see caption
Figure 1.  PRIEST 2008 aerial sighting and effort map.  Click image to enlarge.

right whale, see caption
Figure 2.  Subsurface North Pacific right whale displaying the callosity pattern used in identification of individuals.  Photo by Brenda Rone.

right whale, see caption
Figure 3, PRIEST 2008 satellite-tagged North Pacific right whale.  Photo by Brenda Rone.

After an aerial survey plane crash in New Jersey in May 2008 took the life of observer Stephen Claussen, the PRIEST (Pacific RIght whale Evaluation STudy) aerial survey project was faced with a difficult task. Not only were we grieving for a beloved friend, but we were also faced with pulling together a survey on short notice, since Stephen was the lead observer for this project. With heavy hearts, we persevered through the difficult times and completed a successful aerial survey.

Through an interagency agreement between NMFS and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), NMML's Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program (CAEP) is conducting a multiyear study on the distribution, abundance, and habitat use of North Pacific right whales in the North Aleutian Basin and southeastern Bering Sea using aerial and vessel surveys. The aerial surveys for this project included two components: 1) detection of right whales for the vessel survey and 2) aerial support during satellite-tagging operations.

Survey design consisted of north-south and east-west transects covering Bristol Bay west to the Pribilof Islands. Initial aerial surveys, prior to arrival of the chartered research vessel, Ocean Olympic, focused on transect lines to identify concentrations of whales to optimize vessel time for the tagging and oceanographic components of this study. Upon arrival of the ship, aerial surveys were modified to help locate acoustically detected right whales, obtain photographs, and provide support during tagging operations.

Based out of Sand Point, Alaska, the aerial team conducted surveys in the Bering Sea, from 18 July to 31 August 2008, led by Chief Scientist/Right Whale Survey Coordinator Brenda Rone (CAEP) along with observers Jeff Foster and Greg Fulling. The aerial survey (146.8 flight hr) was flown in an Aerocommander 690A operated by Northern Commanders at an altitude of 229 m (750 ft) and a speed of 204 km/hr (110 knots). The team surveyed a total of 12,331 km (6,655 nautical miles) of trackline and documented several species, including three separate sightings of North Pacific right whales on 5, 21, and 28 August for a total of 13 animals (8 individuals) (Fig. 1).

Operations were conducted using two observers in bubble windows and a third observer seated in the back acting as data recorder, observer, and photographer. When a right whale was sighted, flat passes over the animal were attempted until quality images for photo identification were obtained through the plane’s belly port (Fig. 2).

During tagging operations, two 25-ft inflatable boats were launched from the Ocean Olympic. Both the plane and the ship served as support platforms for the inflatables by providing detailed sighting and behavioral information to the tagging crew. Countless hours of survey time paid off when a satellite tag was successfully placed on a right whale on 21 August 2008. As the three platforms worked together in a collaborative effort, the tag was implanted and all breathed a sigh of relief when the PRIEST project achieved its goal (Fig. 3).

By Brenda Rone


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