Center for Coastal Studies
Interview with Christy Hudak, Research Associate in the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the Center for Coastal Studies.
Although I was born and raised in Ohio I came to Cape Cod in a round-about way via Florida. Long story short, after a six grade class to Sea World of Ohio, I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. After working at Sea World as a front gate attendant and then college (Bachelor’s in Biology and Master’s in Marine Biology), I landed a job at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) studying manatees. Fast forward nine years of rescues, necropsies, and aerial surveys, I wanted expand into marine ecology. Fortunately, I landed at the Center for Coastal Studies in the Right Whale Ecology Program.
The Center for Coastal Studies is a non-profit organization which studies marine mammals, coastal and marine habitats of the Gulf of Maine and Nantucket Sound, promotes stewardship of coastal and marine ecosystems, and provides educational resources and activities for the conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems. CCS was established in 1976 by three researchers who each had a passion for the environment in their field. While sadly one of our founders, Barbara Mayo, passed away, Dr. “Stormy” Mayo and Dr. Graham Geise are still going strong in their passion and work. We have expanded to twenty+ full time staff and an equal amount of seasonal and part time employees and are still growing.
What do you do at the Center for Coastal Studies?
My main job at the Center is to study the food resource of the North Atlantic right whale. I manage the research cruises during the right whale season, January through May, collect zooplankton samples throughout Cape Cod Bay and around right whales, and process the samples to find out the types and densities of the plankton species. I am also an aerial observer and help out the right whale aerial program as well as the seal program. One side project I am working on is looking at microplastics in zooplankton samples and seal poop.
How did you become interested in working with right whales after working with manatees for so long? What sort of training did you have to undergo?
It wasn’t a very big leap from studying manatees to studying right whales in the marine mammal world. While working for FWC, I learned a lot from co-workers who were flying the aerial surveys over the right whale calving grounds in northern Florida. Having the broad background in biology and marine biology prepared me for the study of the right whale’s food resource, though there was a bit of learning to do. I really hadn’t studied zooplankton or right whales outside the academic classes back in college. I needed to brush up on the life history of right whales and their food, the copepods. The book, “The Urban Whale” edited by Scott D. Kraus and Rosalind M. Rolland was a wealth of knowledge, along with the hours of studying the zooplankton under a microscope to identify individual species.
How many right whales are remaining? Where are they?
There are approximately 500 individuals left. Depending on the time of the year, they are seen off the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia down to Florida. They have one known calving ground down in northern Florida and several known habitat areas such as Cape Cod Bay, Bay of Fundy, and Great South Channel to name a few, but unfortunately, researchers don’t know where they go when they are not in these known areas. The ocean is huge and to cover the right whale’s entire region is quite difficult.
How long do they live? How can you tell a right whale’s age?
Right whales are long lived, but there is currently no reliable method to age right whales. Unlike dolphins or sperm whales, they do not have teeth that can be aged. Instead, they have baleen plates. Baleen is made of keratin just like your hair and finger nails. Currently, based on photographic identification, right whales are believed to live 60+ years.
What do they do during different stages of their life?
During their first year, they learn everything from their mother, including where to go for food, what to eat, how to get there, and where to find other right whales. After they are weaned from their mother, they are usually on their own or join other juveniles in loose groups exploring their habitat. They typically are sexually mature by 8-10 years of age.
How do right whales communicate with one another?
Right whales use several different ways to communicate. They produce different vocalizations from “gun shots” to “moans”. Body language, such as tail slaps and flipper slaps are another form of communication. What does it all mean? Researchers are still trying to break their language code.
What role do right whales play in the ecosystem?
Right whales have an important role in the ecosystem. They are one of the key indicator species regarding the health of the oceans. Think of it this way, it all starts with the phytoplankton, also known as plant plankton. Without phytoplankton, there wouldn’t be life in the ocean. The next step up is the zooplankton, also known as animal plankton. The zooplankton will feed on the phytoplankton and other zooplankton. Next tier is the filter feeders, such as baleen whales, basking sharks, and rays and larval fish.
The health of the right whale is dependent upon the health of the zooplankton resource, in particular the copepods, a type of zooplankton. Since right whales are so large, they need a lot of the copepod resource to survive. So, if the health of the right whales is declining that is a good indication that the food resource may be declining and hence the health of the ocean as well. Another role right whales fill is the provider of nutrients to the bottom ocean dwellers. When a right whale dies and eventually sinks to the bottom, numerous species are feeding on the carcass. Sharks and fish will feed directly off the carcass, while bottom dwellers will filter the nutrients from the water column as they rain down from above.
Do you encounter the effects of climate change or pollution regularly?
Yes. Water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have increased ~2 degrees in the last several years due to the change in climate. In addition, the amount of microplastics and microfibers in our zooplankton samples have been increasing, which means fish, baleen whales, rays, etc. are ingesting them as well.
What's a surprising right whale fact you would like people to know?
Did you know right whales are a mobile home for another animal? Cyamids, a crustacean also known as whale lice, live on the right whale’s callosities or roughened skin. And each right whale’s callosity pattern is unique.
What's your favorite part of your job? Do you have a favorite memory at work?
My favorite part of the job is two-fold. I love watching a right whale as it skim feeds through the water and I love finding out what it ate after looking at the zooplankton sample taken behind that feeding whale. It’s completes the question of: Who ate who?
I would have to say, my favorite memory was the day we were on a research cruise in Cape Cod Bay. It was a long day of hard work, taking multiple samples of zooplankton as we traversed the bay. Then all of a sudden a right whale breaches several hundred meters away! But, wait there’s more! The young juvenile continued to breach several more times, all the while getting closer and closer to the boat. Our excitement turned into concern, to a bit of fear as that whale continued to breach closer. Its last breach was just 10 meters off our bow and then there was a lull before it popped up its head right next to our boat. I will always remember that day.
How does the future look for right whales?
Bleak. When the population can afford only one death by human causes per year and we keep surpassing that, the outlook is not good. We have made steps in the right direction in terms of preventing deaths by ship collisions, by moving the shipping lanes away from large aggregations of right whales, alerting mariners when right whales are in the area and slowing ships down during periods of high aggregations. Unfortunately, entanglement deaths are taking its toll on the population. As long as there is rope and nets in the water, right whales will become entangled and suffer agonizing deaths.
What other whales or any aquatic creatures are most at risk?
There are numerous species that are in peril, but the first one that comes to mind beside right whales is the Vaquita. The Vaquita, found in Gulf of California is on brink of extinction. There are only 30 individuals left.
What is the biggest threat to the environment?
Humans. There is no sugar coating it. We want what we want and we want it now. With that mentality as a society, we will always be the biggest threat to the environment.
But, as long as there are still people, who care about the environment and are willing to change, hope is not lost.
What are some steps people can take to protect the earth?
If we each take several small steps it’s a start. For example, do you really need that straw for your drink? Plastic straws do not biodegrade and they are not recyclable. We are stuck with those straws. Do you really need plastic wrap? Try using wax paper or reusable wraps. Instead of a plastic bag, use a reusable cloth bag. In essence it’s time we stepped away from plastics.
Have you noticed any positive trends in environmentalism?
More and more people are slowly becoming aware of what’s around them and what it means to be stewards of the earth. Back in the 1950’s when the plastic bag was invented; it was considered one of the greatest inventions. Now, over 60 years later, cities and countries are banning plastic bags because of the detriment to the environment.
The Center for Coastal Studies is a non-profit marine mammal research center based in Provincetown, MA. CCS conducts scientific research with emphasis on marine mammals of the western North Atlantic and on the coastal and marine habitats and resources of the Gulf of Maine; to promote stewardship of coastal and marine ecosystems; to conduct educational activities and to provide educational resources that encourage the responsible use and conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems.