Friday, February 20, 2015

Humpback Whale in Flagler Beach

The long stretch of “whale-less” days ended at 3:41 PM today with a call from Julie Albert from Marine Resources Council reporting a whale sighting in Flagler Beach. Team 3 surveyor Maryanne Gustafson heard from her neighbor that he had a whale in sight at N 17th Ave. and Maryanne wasted no time in calling the MRC Hotline. Becki arrived at the walkover in less than 15 min. and soon spied the telling tiny dorsal fin as the whale swam back and forth almost 3/4 of a mile offshore. Joy and Jim arrived soon after and corroborated it as a humpback. It was too far offshore for photos and was showing very little of itself. We called the watch after about 30 minutes in the bone-chilling cold, hoping that the 60°F water sliding south along our coastline will soon bring us right whales, too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thrilling Start to Second Half of Our Right Whale Season

During our mid-season update last Saturday night, we described the poor weather and the paucity of whale sightings, suggesting that this season might be mirroring the last, when sightings picked up in the second half. How prophetic! At 9:01 Sunday morning the phone rang. Team Leader Larry Bell, en route to meet with Team 4, had sighted whales from the road. The Team, Becki, Jim, and the Georgia Aquarium Travelling Trevallies converged on Highbridge Road and verified a mother and calf, well to the south and moving very little. The Air Cam arrived shortly after 11:30 and obtained photos.

The pair was provisionally identified to be Catalog #1604 with her 5th calf, the same pair that eluded us in the fog off Ormond Beach on 13 January. They were difficult again this day, too, remaining nearly stationary the entire day in an area of North Peninsula State Park where there was no parking along the road and, thus, no access to see them. We hoped the pair would come south to Ormond-By-The-Sea, but this did not happen.

Continuing south on their survey track 1.5 nm offshore, the Air Cam crew soon spotted a large group of dolphins about a mile to the east and flew out to investigate. As they approached, two right whales surfaced…another mother and calf! Circling for photos, the whales treated the crew to some noteworthy interactions, including the calf lying across mom’s back as seen in this
image. The mother was provisionally identified as Catalog #3693. The pair was last seen on 22 January off Melbourne and reported by the Marine Resources Council (MRC). Wow, two pairs in one day, within a few miles of one another. What a great start to the second half of our season!

Then, Monday dawned and it got even better. Photographer Ed Siarkowicz, on Flagler Pier, called Team Leader David Ogg at 6:50 to report two whales headed north. At nearly the same time, Julie Albert from MRC phoned Jim with the same report from fisherman “Big Mike” Lussier, who was also on the Pier. Dave called Assistant Team Leader Terry Clark and she and Char Crawford quickly acquired the whales while Jim got on the road. Terry, Char, Gary Phillips, and Chris Young (the Monday Team 3) kept the whales in sight using our leapfrog method. The Air Cam arrived shortly before 11:00 and recognized Catalog #1604 and calf! The two were quite active and the Air Cam crew photographed mom on her left side, with her right eye visible above the water and the calf resting its head on her pec flipper, a rare sight.

This time, the whales cooperated by slowly swimming north, close to shore, in excellent sighting conditions. They were visible all day, including a report from the Georgia Aquarium Travelling Trevallies survey team at 4:15 pm that the pair was at Jungle Hut Road in The Hammock.

Also in the last several days, two new mother/calf pairs were added to the list, Catalog #2611, Picasso, and Catalog #1611, Clover, bringing the total to 12. We have documented both whales in our survey area, Picasso in February 2009, and Clover twice in February 2006 and several times in March 2009. With any luck, we will be seeing them off our shores again soon.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Better Weather Yields a Juvenile Right Whale

At last, Monday the 19th dawned with blue skies, bright sun, and calm seas. Mobile Team 2 arrived at Washington Oaks State Park at 10:46 AM and were just getting their gear out when Mark Turner spotted white ruffles in the water. Day leader Donna Drevniak called Jim, who arrived quickly to confirm a single right whale. The Air Cam, with Joy and Becki, arrived just after 11:30 AM and almost passed it by since it was submerged for several minutes at a time. We forwarded photos to our colleagues at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) for a provisional ID and learned that it was a juvenile, not readily identifiable in the Right Whale Catalog. This was the first sighting of the season by one of our teams, and the first photographs of the season from the Air Cam.

Calls came from the Marine Resources Council’s (MRC) Hotline reporting another whale just to the south of the St. Augustine Pier. Mobile Team 1 got into position and the Air Cam searched the area for over a half hour, without success. As further information came in, we believe that it may have been a humpback whale, whose movements tend to be quicker and more random than right whales, making them much harder to locate.

Tuesday arrived with some of the calmest seas we have observed in our many seasons. At 10:13 AM, Sally Thomas, who had recently attended an MRC right whale lecture, called the Hotline to report a sighting in New Smyrna Beach. Four minutes later, Mark Atkinson, on duty with Volusia County Beach Safety and Ocean Rescue, confirmed the sighting. Chad Truxall, Executive Director of the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, located and stayed
with the whale for position updates to the Air Cam, crewed by Joy and Jim, who located a single right whale at 12:04 PM. Circling, we soon realized that this was the same juvenile right whale as yesterday. Kem McNair, a local photographer, took this photo of the whale’s head and flukes from shore.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Right Whale Sighting Update

Last Tuesday, the 13th, proved to be a lucky day. The call to the Marine Resources Council’s Hotline alerting us to right whales in Ormond Beach came from Carlos Diaz. Although Team 5 and Becki arrived in good time, the fog rolled in too quickly to obtain many photos, leaving the mother’s identity and the documentation of the calf as inconclusive. Luckily, Carlos photographed the pair and his images both confirmed the presence of a calf and helped in making the identification.

Our colleagues at FWCC have provisionally identified the mother as Catalog #1604 with her 5th calf. Further, this was the first report of the season for this mother and her calf, bringing the total to three mother/calf pairs. We know Catalog #1604 from sighting her with previous calves in 2005 and 2011. To learn more about this mother, follow this link,, click “Agree,” then “Search for Individual Whales,” then the dropdown box for Catalog No., and scroll down until you reach 1604.

Starting tomorrow and continuing into next week, the weather and sighting conditions are forecast to improve. With the Air Cam flying and lots of team and collaborator eyeballs on the water, the luck may continue!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Right Whales Spotted Just Before Fog Rolls In

Just as this morning’s 8:00 AM surveys were scheduled to begin, Julie Albert of Marine Resources Council called with a sighting report from Ormond Beach via the Hotline. Becki and Team 5 converged on the Grenada Blvd. lookout and spotted a mother and calf right whale in the gathering fog about ¾ mile offshore, heading north. Becki was able to obtain some photos before the fog thickened and obliterated all trace of them. This is the head of the mother. We are working on the ID.
Jim and Joy joined the group and we leapfrogged north, estimating where the whales might be using past data we have collected on swim speed, hoping that the fog would lift to reacquire them. We hung on until early afternoon, but the fog showed no signs of abating. We called it shortly before 1:30 PM.

The weather forecast for tomorrow is discouraging, but any reasonable effort to look for these two will be well worth it. Although they were heading north this morning, we know from past experience that they could change direction and be anywhere from The Hammock to Ponce Inlet. Let’s give it a good try if the weather will allow!