Researchers from HDR, the Azura team, and the U.S. Navy recently completed Year 2 of the Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Monitoring Project managed by Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, Environmental Planning Division (NAVFAC Atlantic) and funded by U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Environmental Readiness Branch (FFC). This project is part of the Navy’s comprehensive Marine Species Monitoring Program and is being conducted to assess the occurrence, habitat use, and behavior of humpback whales in the mid-Atlantic region. The baseline data from this study will be used to assess how humpback whales may be disturbed by anthropogenic activities in U.S. Navy training ranges and high-traffic areas in the Chesapeake Bay and coastal waters.
This team of expert marine mammal scientists conducted 27 visual surveys in the coastal waters of Virginia, including the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, between December 2015 and May 2016. They recorded 96 sightings of humpback whales and five sightings of fin whales. Using photo-identification techniques, researchers identified 37 individual humpback whales based on their unique dorsal fin and tail fluke features. Six of these whales were observed during the Year 1 surveys in 2014/2015. Researchers also conducted two focal follow sessions during which they remained near two humpback whales for over 60 minutes so that they could observe and record detailed behaviors and locations of the whales. These data are currently being examined for any emerging patterns in habitat utilization and primary behaviors. In addition, enough skin was collected from 11 biopsy samples so that stable isotope analyses can be conducted to determine foraging related to prey consumption.
Year 2 research efforts also included a satellite-monitored tagging component so that researchers can document seasonal humpback whale movement patterns in the nearshore waters off Virginia Beach. Nine satellite tags were deployed during this field season. Data collected from Year 1 of the project indicated that humpback whales spend a considerable amount of time within Norfolk’s shipping channels, which are important high-use areas for both the U.S. Navy and commercial shipping traffic. Vessel interactions in the study area are a concern for humpback whales due to their known occurrence in shipping lanes and evidence of injuries based on the scars and physical injuries indicative of propeller or vessel strikes that have been seen on humpback whales in this region.
Detailed results from Year 1 and Year 2 of this project are available in the 2015/2016 Annual Progress Report (Aschettino et al. 2016). Year 3 surveys are anticipated to begin in late November or early December 2016.