Friday, February 26, 2010

The Big Picture

The weekend of February 19, 20, and 21 brought good weather and good sighting conditions. The six survey teams, aerial and on the ground, from South Carolina to Florida covered the usual areas. In addition, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Team flew a survey offshore and south past Cape Canaveral. This combined effort recorded 71 sightings in three days, which were widely distributed throughout the region. The key to the plot is MC=mother-calf pair, GROUP=groups of 3 or more individuals, and SPR=singles and non-mother-calf pairs. Click on the plot to see a larger version.

Mother-calf count update ... as of this date, 14 mother-calf pairs have been reported. The number is slowly creeping up. In one instance, female #3260 was observed by two aerial survey teams alone on one day and then by another team on the next day with a calf.

The February issue of Right Whale News is now posted to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium website at Click on the "current issue" tab for the February 2010 issue. Back issues are also available.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Humpbacks Depart and Rights Return

With the winds finally abating enough for the AirCam to fly, we had hoped to photograph some of the humpback whales that frequented our coast all week, but they have vanished. No sightings were reported on Friday or Saturday anywhere and the AirCam crew saw none on either day, despite flights down to Canaveral Seashore on Friday and Cape Canaveral on Saturday.

Happily, the right whales made a number of appearances throughout our area. Today, Saturday, just before 8:30 am, Mobile Team 1 called in a sighting from St. Augustine Pier. The sighting had an unexpected aspect and reminds us about a part of our work, documenting human impacts. One of the ten individuals had two sets of propeller scars across its back as seen in the photo. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission team identified the whale as #3745, a three-year-old male, who received these scars sometime in the last year from an unknown vessel impact.

Some familiar whales were sighted by shore teams and the AirCam. Female #3123 and her calf swam by Flagler Beach Pier on Friday, allowing our land camera to capture this great close-up of the two. They also appeared further south today, along with two other mother-calf pairs, #3157 (about a mile north of Matanzas Inlet) and #2430 (5 miles north of the shuttle launch pads in Cape Canaveral). This indicates that these pairs are lingering in our area.

On another note, we often see dolphins with the whales. This is an image of a single individual with a dolphin escort photographed by the AirCam crew east of Canaveral Seashore.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Better Weather Ahead for Whale Watching

After days of wind and cold, it looks like we are finally getting a break. Starting tomorrow, Friday, the winds should diminish and temperatures should begin to climb back into a more Florida-like range through Sunday. We are planning to fly the AirCam all three days. In addition, while the humpbacks have kept us busy chasing after them up and down the coast, there are indications that right whales are out there, too. We confirmed two adult right whales at the north end of Butler Beach, near St. Augustine. We also had a right whale sighting report from Surf Club, just south of Marineland, but the whales headed out to sea before we could arrive. So, here’s to light winds and heavy whales over the next few days!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Humpbacks Make a Mid-Season Appearance

On Monday, 15 February, Mobile team 4 called just after 9:00 am to alert us of a possible whale sighting. As they watched to confirm, the team spotted dorsal fins – humpback whales!

Arriving on scene, Dr. Jim and Sheila set up on the fifth floor of the Nautilus Condo, one of our community teams. They observed diving birds and one to two humpbacks surfacing repeatedly in a manner that identified this as a humpback feeding area. Unlike right whales who rarely, if ever, feed here due to low concentrations of their preferred food, copepods, humpbacks that do visit are often seen feeding.

This rare opportunity had everyone’s nearly undivided attention, except, thankfully, Nautilus’s co-team leader, Dale, who scanned the ocean to the south and discovered right whales in the distance. Initially, they appeared to be two adult/juveniles. Happily, they swam closer and revealed themselves as a mother and calf pair. Despite a sea state 4, the photos were clear enough to identify them as female #3123 and her calf. The calf must have been feeling at bit exuberant, leaping out of the water and showing off a white belly as seen in the photo.

While Dr. Jim and Sheila focused on photographing this pair, humpback sighting reports continued to come in from teams as far north as Varne Park in Beverly Beach and to the south in Ormond Beach. We surmise that there may have been up to four humpback whales working the area throughout the day. In seasons past, when we have seen humpbacks, they have appeared later in the season, in mid to late March. Last weekend, we responded to sighting calls where we could not find whales. Perhaps, these humpbacks were teasing us with glimpses as they often do. They may remain in our area for another day or two, so keep a sharp eye out for a whale that rolls at the surface like a dolphin and has a small dorsal fin about two-thirds of its body length from its head.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Whales in the Rain

Every day and every season is different! This season so far has been cold and windy. On some days, we add fog and rain. These conditions have kept the AirCam on the ground for almost two weeks. Yet, we have sightings. On Thursday, 4 February, we had mother # 3123 and her first calf (see below). On Tuesday, 9 February, we had a mother and calf, possibly #3123, in Ormond, and probably another pair just south of Hammock Dunes. The whales are around! We are hanging on as best we can, awaiting a stretch of good weather--when we hope for "light winds and heavy whales."

Tenth Mother and Calf Identified

Last week, the Traveling Trevallies, a group of Georgia Aquarium volunteers who seek out volunteer opportunities with other organizations to broaden their experience, augmented our mobile surveys. On Thursday, 4 February, they were on an afternoon survey in Sector 4 with Mobile team leader, Becki Smith. The group spotted a mother and calf in Ormond Beach. After Jim Hain and Sheila McKenney arrived with the land camera, the two whales moved close enough to shore for photos and were subsequently identified as #3123, a nine-year-old with her first calf.

This is the third time this season that Marineland Project responders have photographed a new female right whale with a calf. It is uncommon for this event to occur once in a season. To have three such occurrences suggests that right whale movement patterns may be different this year. This new mother brought the season’s total in the Southeast to ten.

So far, we have seen four different mother and calf pairs. Three of these we have not documented in our area since the Project began in 2001. Could the extreme cold weather last month have influenced some pregnant females to travel farther south? The next few weeks, when sightings here tend to peak, may provide clues to answer that question.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Whale “Daze”

The end of last week will certainly be one for the Project’s record books. Thursday and Friday, 28 and 29 of January, produced some of the highest numbers of sightings and right whales that we have seen in nearly a decade of working in this area. We also benefited from nearly ideal conditions to spot and photograph the whales.

As the AirCam prepared to take off on Thursday, whales had been reported off St. Augustine Beach, Marineland, South Flagler Beach and Main Street Pier in Daytona Beach. Flying north from Matanzas Inlet, the AirCam did not find whales despite searching between the Pier and Butler Beach, but did find a large pod of dolphins about a mile offshore. Flying south, we spotted and photographed female #1950 and calf just south of Marineland and include one of the photos here. From there, the AirCam continued south and confirmed two more females with calves, #2430 in South Flagler Beach and #3157 in Daytona Beach Shores along with numerous adult/juvenile pairs and groups just north and south of Flagler Beach Pier. In all, we counted 16 whales. This was the first time we had three mother/calf pairs in one day. This also was the first time in the Project’s history that we have seen female #1950 in our area.

We thought that was a day not to be repeated very soon; and then came Friday. Calls reporting whale sightings began just after 7:00 am. The locations given were scattered from North Flagler Beach to Ormond Beach. The AirCam located a large group of adult/juvenile whales clustered in twos and fours, spread out north and south of the Flagler Beach Pier up to two miles offshore. We counted 15 whales. In the midst of this group, but off by themselves and closer to shore, was female #1950 and calf. To the south, near Grenada Blvd. in Ormond Beach, the AirCam photographed female #2430 and calf, bringing the total for the day to 19 whales.

Saturday capped off the week with an early call from staff at Marineland of Florida reporting whales just to the east of the facility. Threatening storms kept the AirCam grounded and we were able to confirm at least three right whales from the Surf Club as the scattered group headed south.

We are still sorting out the photographs and flight data to figure out which adult/juvenile whales were in our area and for how many days. This second photo shows the dramatic white belly of one of the whales seen on 28 January. The whale’s head is toward the top of the photo.