Monday, February 28, 2011

The Whales Keep Us Guessing…Again

Just as we thought that the season may be drawing to a close, the phone rang on Friday afternoon, 25 February, with a sighting from Surf Club, about a mile south of Marineland. To our surprise, we confirmed a mother and calf, heading SOUTH! We followed them to Washington Oaks, then to Malacompra Park, where we left them still swimming steadily south. They obliged by coming within a quarter mile of shore and we were able to identify them as #2660, Gannet, a fifteen-year-old female, and her third calf, born sometime before 21 December. This was our first view of the pair in our area this season. Gannet has a white belly and you can see the white chin of her calf in the photo.

Naturally, we looked forward to sighting them again on Saturday, but coastal fog kept surveys and the AirCam on hold. By 3:00 pm, the fog had finally lifted enough to launch the AirCam, but despite calm seas and surveying out to 3 miles offshore, Gannet and calf were not to be found.

Friday also brought the good news of a newly sighted mother and calf pair just to the north of our area. Female #2790 and her third calf brought the total count of calves born this year to eighteen.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Another New Right Whale Mother and Calf

With the quickly rising sea surface temperatures, it appears that the 2011 season may be drawing to a close. Whale sightings have diminished over the last week and when they are sighted, the whales are mostly offshore and out of sight of land. Surprises remain, however. On Tuesday, 22 February, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's aerial survey team sighted a mother-calf pair 6.4 miles northeast of St. Augustine. It was the 17th pair for the season, #3130 with her second calf (the previous was in 2008).

The Marineland Right Whale Project’s acoustic sampling boat, on the water that day, received the whales’ location from the FWC team. As the winds calmed and the sun brightened, the curious calf and its mother came by for a close approach. The team recorded and photographed this pair over the course of the afternoon.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where are the Whales?

The short answer to the above question is, “not where we anticipated they would be, based on past seasons.” Our most recent sightings, a humpback whale on 18 February and female right whale #3430 and calf on 19 February, were both offshore, on the 3-mile trackline now flown regularly by the AirCam. Shoreline sightings are remarkably non-existent. This reminds us of the 2008 season, when the right whales departed our area early, and our last sighting of the season occurred on 12 Feb. However, that season was the warmest of our eleven seasons and the current season has been one of our coldest. Last season, another very cold one, the whales seemed to linger in our area, not completely departing until well into March. We still have much to learn about what influences the whales’ movements. They may yet reappear, with water temperatures warming over the last several days.

 On a very positive note, the FWC aerial survey team spotted a new mother and calf on 13 February. They have been provisionally identified as #1245, Slalom, a 29-year-old female with her fifth calf. This brings the total for the season to 16, a very respectable number.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Offshore Sightings

As the sightings from shore became scarce, the AirCam altered its survey track to fly a coastal, 1 nm line south, then shift east and fly a 3 nm line north. The result is a couple of sightings we would otherwise have missed. On 9 February, Jim and Joy flew this pattern and discovered right whale mother #2413 (provisional ID) and calf 3 nm east of New Smyrna Beach. About 15 minutes later, they spotted a single right whale, provisionally identified as #3560, 3 nm east of Daytona Beach.

We last saw #2413 and calf on 17, 18 and 19 December. In those three days, the pair traveled from St. Augustine Pier to Ormond Beach. They were subsequently spotted several times to the north of our study area, apparently making the rounds this season. The sighting of #3560, a six-year-old of undetermined gender, was our first this season.

On Sunday, 13 February, Jim ventured out of St. Augustine Inlet in a 24-foot rigid-hull inflatable boat to collect sound recordings of right whales. The FWC aerial survey team relayed two of their sightings some 9 nm east of Vilano Beach, one a mother and calf. The AirCam flew out to photograph the boat and the whales, recognizing mother #1604 and calf, a pair that we’ve seen several times this season.

 In a pattern reminiscent of last season, when temperatures were on the colder side, the whales are around, but currently further offshore. With a warming trend between now and the end of the week, the whales could move in and be visible from shore. Plus, we are still looking for some females, #1622 and #2753, to appear with calves. The season is far from over!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Whale Blitz a Success

Our concerted effort by land and air over the weekend and into the beginning of this week to find whales paid off, resulting in several sightings of mothers and calves in our area, including one pair that we had not seen before. It began on Saturday, 29 Jan, with calls from the MRC Whale Hotline of whales near Sunglow Pier in Daytona Beach and Cinnamon Beach in Palm Coast and from Team 2 with a sighting off Washington Oaks. Joy and Sheila in the AirCam responded to all three, but did not see any right whales. Toward the end of the AirCam survey, northbound near Anastasia State Park, Sheila spotted a mother and calf who proved to be #3270, Pico.

The next day, Sunday, 30 Jan, Julie from MRC called early with reports of whales in Crescent Beach. Fog rolled in and obliterated the view before the response team could arrive. As the fog lifted, Team 1’s Leader acquired them at the walkover just south of Spyglass Condo. It’s Pico and calf again! As the AirCam photographed this pair, Jim and Sheila responded to a Surf Club team report and confirmed another mother/calf pair, #3430. After photographing this pair, the AirCam with Joy and Becki continued south to Cape Canaveral, sighting a humpback whale near the beach along Canaveral Seashore.

After this flurry of activity, Monday, 31 January was strangely quiet, despite near perfect sighting conditions. The phone didn’t ring once and the AirCam surveyed along a 3 mile offshore track from Matanzas Inlet to south of New Smyrna Beach with no whales to be seen.

Events picked up again on Tuesday, 1 Feb as Team 3 spotted whales at Beverly Beach, a near miracle at 1.5 miles offshore in hazy conditions. The AirCam confirmed these as Pico and calf, making this pair and #3430 the most frequently sighted whales for us this season.

Julie from MRC called again just after 1:00 pm with a sighting at St. Aug. Beach Pier. At this point, the AirCam was well to the south so Jim contacted the Florida State aerial team who conveniently were just taking off from St. Augustine. They confirmed a mother/calf pair, #2746, a 14-year-old female with her second calf.

After completing the coastal survey line south of New Smyrna Beach, the AirCam again flew out to a 3 mile track line and followed it north. This time, east of New Smyrna Beach, Sheila’s eagle eyes spotted a mother and calf new to us this season, #3240, Orion, age 9 with her first calf. With Orion, we have now seen seven of the fifteen mother and calf pairs reported in the SE US.