Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Returning Right Whale Mothers

Two right whale mothers that we saw earlier in the season were spotted over the last couple of days in the southern section of Volusia County. On Saturday, 22 January, a call to the MRC Whale Hotline from the resident of a beach condo in Daytona Beach Shores gave us the opportunity to document provisionally identified mother #1604 and her calf. The two were nearly a mile offshore in a Sea State 5 (LOTS of white caps) when the response team of Becki, Joy and Sheila got the camera in place, but the photos were just clear enough to make out her callosity pattern and a distinctive white dot near her left blowhole. Check this out in the lowest right hand photo on the Right Whale Catalog website (www.rwcatalog.neaq.org). We saw this pair on 28 December in Crescent Beach and on 11 January in Ormond Beach.

Yesterday, 24 January, the AirCam crew of Joy and Becki discovered a mother and calf two miles south of Ponce Inlet. For several minutes, only the calf appeared at the surface, intermittently, swimming north, causing Joy and Becki to wonder if they were observing a very small yearling or an orphaned calf. Then, mom rose into view through the turbid water. She has been provisionally identified as #3430, age seven years with her first calf. We photographed her from the AirCam on 4 January in Vilano Beach

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yesterday morning, Wednesday, 19 January, just after 9:00 am, on her way to meet up with the Sector 4 Mobile team, Becki spotted a whale breaching in South Flagler Beach, about 1.5 miles from shore. The Sector 4 team joined her to follow the whale south. Shortly thereafter, the Sector 3 Mobile team called with a whale sighting from Beverly Beach, also moving south. To top off the morning, Julie from Marine Resources Council called with a sighting report via the Hotline of a whale a few miles north of Ponce Inlet. To complicate matters, a heavy fog bank moved ashore mid-morning, obscuring all trace of the whales. When it finally cleared, the wind came up, creating abundant whitecaps (sea state 4) and the whales could not be reacquired.
Thankfully, the fog dissipated and the low clouds lifted shortly after noon, enabling Joy and George to bring the AirCam out to help. They located Becki’s sighting first, now a mile or so south of Flagler Beach Pier. It proved to be a new mother/calf pair for the Marineland Project. The mother, provisionally identified as #1911, Mystique, is 22 years old and this is her fourth calf. She was last seen on 4 January off the coast of Georgia.

Feeling as though they may have missed a whale, Joy and George flew back north and located Sector 3’s sighting about a mile north of Flagler Beach Pier. This was a single whale, likely a juvenile. The ID is pending.

Flying south, the AirCam picked up the MRC hotline sighting. This proved to be a single whale, too, who was loitering about a half mile east of the entrance to Ponce Inlet. This ID is pending as well.

While the AirCam was busy in the Ponce Inlet area, the visiting team of volunteers from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, conducting an afternoon survey in Sector 4, called with a sighting just south of North Peninsula State Park in Ormond-By-The-Sea. The whales were difficult to see and Sheila sent a text message to the AirCam, who received it about 5 miles south of the sighting. After several minutes of looking, helped significantly by Sheila on the aviation radio, Joy and George located a mother/calf pair, recognizing Pico, #3270, the pair they had photographed yesterday in Palm Coast.

The AirCam headed back to its home in Hastings, but the Georgia Aquarium volunteers were not finished. Late in the afternoon, they called with another sighting in South Flagler Beach. The whale was closer to shore and Sheila was able to get photos. Comparing these with the AirCam photos, they matched the single whale seen by the AirCam north of Flagler Beach Pier earlier in the day.

Sighting and documenting so many whales in such challenging conditions is a great example of how the Project’s components of trained and experienced shore teams, the AirCam, and the various communications channels complement each other to attain a successful outcome.

A Large Group and a New Mom

We are approaching the busy point in our typical season and the whales are turning up with more frequency. On Sunday, 16 January, the AirCam crew of Joy and Sheila confirmed a group of 13 adult/juveniles in Ormond/Daytona Beach. The Florida aerial survey team had documented the same number the day before in a similar location and it appears that they didn’t go far overnight. The whales were spread out in groups of one to four animals from Grenada Blvd in Ormond Beach to a half mile south of Main St. Pier in Daytona Beach. While most of the identifications will come later, there was one outstanding individual who we were able to recognize easily from the air, #3530, named Ruffian. Several years ago, Ruffian was photographed with serious wounds on his back and tail stock, possibly the result of a severe entanglement that he managed to resolve on his own. Thankfully, he survived, but carries the distinctive reminder of that incident. Ruffian was photographed in nearly the same area almost a year ago by Joy and George in the AirCam.

On Tuesday, 18 January, Sector 2 reported a sighting from Malacompra Rd in Palm Coast, about a mile or more offshore (good catch!). The low dense cloud cover lifted just long enough for Joy and Becki to bring the AirCam on site and document a mother/calf pair. The mother has been provisionally identified as #3270, Pico, with her first calf. This is the first time that we have seen her this season.

Sector 3 had a sighting from Golden Lion in Flagler Beach, also a mile or so offshore (more great eyes!). Sheila responded, but the single right whale was too far out for photos and the threatening weather prevented the AirCam from coming down to photograph.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mother and Calf Right Whales in Ormond

After several days of windy weather and no sightings, the Tuesday morning fog lifted and a soft sun emerged to reveal whales to a former surveyor, still on the alert, who phoned the MRC Right Whale Hotline number at 11:02. Mobile Survey Team 4 acquired them and followed ... working south to the North County Beach Patrol Tower in Ormond. Here, the whales came closer and the response team of Jim, Sheila, and Becki were able to get photos and confirm a mother-calf pair! They were provisionally identified as mother #1604, age unknown (but more than 25 years old) and calf number unknown. In the image, the thin white scar on the right lateral surface helped with the identification. We previously saw this mother and calf on 28 December off Crescent Beach.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

AirCam Helps Out

Our surveys began on Monday, 3 January and at 9:10 on Wednesday morning, 5 January, the

Hammock Dunes team became the first of the survey season to call in a whale sighting. Shortly thereafter, Team 3 called from Varn Park. Kudos to both teams, as the sky was heavily overcast, the light very flat, and the whales a bit offshore and low in the water. Jim and Sheila responded and initially agreed with the teams that the two whales were a mother-calf pair. One of the whales had the classic calf-shaped head, resembling a Morgan horse, but sporting a full set of callosities. It was a puzzle. The AirCam arrived and confirmed the pair to be two juvenile right whales instead of the mother-calf pair.

This shows the value of the plane to accurately report sightings, and underlines the importance of careful observation. The photos are of one of the whales, taken from the land and AirCam. Note the dolphin’s dorsal fin in the land photo and the unusual series of small callosities along the whale’s lower jaw in the AirCam photo. ID’s for both of the whales are pending.

On Tuesday, 4 January, a call to the Right Whale Hotline resulted in a sighting in north Vilano Beach being relayed to the AirCam via the FWCC aerial survey aircraft to verify and photograph. Although a little

to the north of the area we usually cover, the AirCam was in the vicinity on survey and gladly detoured to assist in documenting the pair. The female is tentatively identified as #3430, a seven-year-old female with her first calf. They have been sighted several times in this general area in the last week or so. We saw her as a calf in 2004 and again as a yearling in 2005.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

End of Year Right Whale Sightings

The year ended on a high note with right whale sightings on the 28th, 29th and 30th of December, including two mother/calf pairs we have not seen yet this season. On 28 December, a resident of Windjammer Condo in Crescent Beach called the whale hotline at 11:30 a.m. to report a right whale in front of her condo to Julie of Marine Resources Council. Julie called us and we responded, sighting at least two whales in the distance to the south of Crescent Beach Park. The whales remained mostly stationary, refusing to come within photographic distance to a public walkover, a challenge along this stretch of coastline. We finally gained access to a private walkover and discovered a female

tentatively identified as #1604 with a calf. She is an older female, 25 years or more, and has had at least one calf before this one. The Marineland Project documented her in our area on 25 January and 28 February in 2005.

29 and 30 December were stellar weather days and we took advantage of them by flying two surveys in the AirCam on the 29th, our typical coastal survey and an afternoon flight three miles offshore. On this flight, we sighted a single adult/juvenile right on the survey line east of New Smyrna Beach. We do not have an ID for this whale yet.

On 30 December we flew a standard coastal survey and spotted a female tentatively identified as #3010 and her calf just north of the St. Augustine Inlet, our turnaround spot. This was the first time we have documented this female and it was the first sighting of her this season with a new calf. She is at least 11 years old and this is at least her second calf.

Eleven mothers and calves have been provisionally identified in the Southeast US and we have seen three of them before the start of our regular survey season. This certainly bodes well for another active year!