Thursday, December 20, 2012
The Volunteer Sighting Network made two valuable contributions to right whale conservation and stewardship in the last several days. On Tuesday afternoon, 18 December, a boater, Tom Dillon, sighted a floating carcass about 3 miles east of the Palm Coast area of Flagler County. He reported the sighting and location, and sent photos to his fiancee, Jennifer Kureen, of Melbourne Beach. Jennifer had recently been to a class on right whales and the sighting network given by Julie Albert, Marine Resources Council (MRC). Jennifer called the right whale sighting hotline maintained by the MRC and forwarded the photos, confirming it was a dead right whale with fishing gear wrapped around its tail. It was too late in the day to start an aerial search for the carcass, but overnight, onshore winds deposited it about a mile south of Varn Park in Flagler County where it was discovered Wednesday morning. A necropsy was conducted beginning yesterday afternoon and went into the evening. It will likely take a few weeks to process the samples and to know what might have been the cause of the whale’s demise.
But wait! The news is not all bad. Ron Ginn, a resident of A Street in Crescent Beach, sighted whales close to shore just north of the SR206 Bridge at noon yesterday. He too phoned the MRC hotline. The information in turn was relayed to the AirCam that was northbound on its aerial survey and coincidentally was just approaching Crescent Beach. The AirCam crew spotted the whales where Ron had reported and confirmed a mother and calf pair, plus a large group of dolphins swimming around them. The mother has been tentatively identified as Whale #3540, named Blackheart. (All known right whales are given a four-digit number when they are entered into the Catalog curated by the New England Aquarium. Over time, many of them have been given names.) Two other new mother/calf pairs were sighted by aerial survey teams to the north, bringing the season total to 9 calves so far. Given the low number of calves born last year, to have this many this early in the season is very encouraging.
Birth and death…the cycle of life continues. Many thanks to all of you who are keeping watch to provide this invaluable data.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Although the only photo of the whales sighted on 29 November in south Flagler Beach has a partial whale head, it was enough for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission’s aerial survey researchers to match with some of their photos and conclude that Right whale #2753, named Arpeggio, had graced us with her appearance along with her calf of this season. The curators of the right whale catalog at New England Aquarium have provisionally agreed. If you were around in 2008, you might remember that Arpeggio made numerous appearances all along the Florida coast in the early part of the season, keeping us very busy. In early December, Arpeggio and calf were photographed near Mayport, but we are prepared in case she returns to our area. The AirCam flew its first survey on Sunday, 16 December and will now be making regular flights. Six mother/calf pairs have been provisionally identified, including #2330 who was here in 2004 and #2413, in 2011. Keep a sharp eye out anytime you are on the coast!
Thursday, November 29, 2012
For the first time since the Marineland Right Whale Project began in 2001, we confirmed right whales in Flagler Beach in November! Julie Albert of Marine Resources Council received the call on the Hotline this afternoon and we mobilized a response team from Nautilis Condominium in south Flagler Beach. They spotted two whales at S 25th Street and followed them as they quickly moved to the Flagler County line, disappearing as they swam into Volusia. Despite searching for two hours in Ormond Beach, we did not see the whales again and were unable to get photographs with our long lens. However, Dale Hench of Nautilus got a photo of a right whale’s head and the tip of a second whale’s fluke, so we could confirm species and number. Based on behavior, we believe that they were two adult/juveniles.
So, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and turn your eyes seaward in case any other right whales decide to make an early appearance. May this be the harbinger of a great season!
Saturday, October 13, 2012
We are getting an early start to our thirteenth season with dates and news. We trust that you have had a good summer and are anticipating, as we are, the return of the whales in a few months. If you would like some insight into recent right whale activity on the northern feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, see the New England Aquarium’s research blog at http://rightwhales.neaq.org/, and also see the report in the October Right Whale News, posted at www.narwc.org.
Our calendar begins with the Right Whale Festival in Jacksonville Beach on Saturday, 17 November, celebrating the return of right whales to our waters. See below for more details.
In December, we will offer Introductory Talks following the successful pattern of last year, in Ormond Beach, Palm Coast, and St. Augustine Beach. With New Years Day falling on a Tuesday, we will be moving our usual survey schedule to begin on Sunday, 6 January. We are scheduling 10 full weeks, to end on a Saturday, to allow equal participation for every team. The Training Class is scheduled the day before surveys begin. Like last year, we will focus on the training of surveyors. Please do your best to attend as we have made some changes in the data that you will be collecting.
IMPORTANT DATES FOR THE 2013 SEASON
Right Whale Introductory Talks for new volunteers, surveyors and spotters alike, and anyone wanting to know how to spot right whales. (Encourage friends and neighbors to attend!):
Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012
1:00 PM to 2:30 PM
Flagler County Public Library
2500 Palm Coast Parkway, NW
Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012
10:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Ormond Beach Public Library
30 S. Beach St.
Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012
3:00 PM to 4:30 PM
Anastasia Island Branch
St. Johns County Public Library
124 Sea Grove Main St.,
St. Augustine Beach
«« Survey Training Class for ALL SURVEY volunteers, new and returning, who are planning to participate in the dedicated survey effort:
Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013
2:00 PM to 4:30 PM
Center for Marine Studies, Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience
9505 Ocean Shore Blvd., Marineland
Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Right Whale Festival
The 4th Annual Right Whale Festival will be held on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at the Sea Walk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The festival includes a beach clean-up, live music, kids’ activities, arts & crafts, exhibits, including Marine Resources Council and Marineland Right Whale Project, a silent auction and a beach run. Please visit www.rightwhalefestival.org for more information.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Shop Online and Donate to the Project
With the economy still in recovery, fundraising has become increasingly challenging and we have sought new avenues for support. We have teamed up with Buy4.com to establish an opportunity for shopping online to generate donations to the Project that won’t cost the shopper a penny more. Buy4.com has relationships with thousands of participating stores including Amazon, Apple, iTunes, Groupon, Best Buy, Expedia, 1-800-Flowers, Macy’s, Bloomingdales, etc. Commissions normally paid to search engines like Google and Yahoo for online purchases can now be directed as donations to the Project. Simply go to www.Buy4Marinelandrightwhale.com to join and download the Buy4 Shopping Reminder. Then, when shopping for plane tickets, clothes, books, etc., go to www.Buy4Marinelandrightwhale.com and a percentage of your purchase will be donated to the Project. It’s safe, fast, easy, and free! And, you will be helping to preserve the continuity of the Project’s work.
The region, defined as South Carolina to Florida, hosted six mother/calf pairs plus 62 other right whales, documented and identified by all teams working in the area. Both the number of calves born and the number of other whales visiting the region were low compared to averages from recent seasons. We have become accustomed to calf counts in the 20’s and total right whales spotted during the season numbering 150 to 250.
Warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures likely contributed to the low numbers of right whales present in the region and to their remaining mostly to the north of St. Augustine. Despite the warm water temperature, right whale #1208 and her calf were sighted several times in the Jacksonville area until mid-March 15. The calf was first spotted in early February, and may have been born later than usual. Perhaps, they lingered to give the calf more time to prepare for the migration north.
Marineland Right Whale Project:
Although we ended our surveys two weeks early, our eight-week effort resulted in 1,702 survey hours plus 48 hours for the volunteers from the Georgia Aquarium who conducted independent afternoon surveys. This 1,750 total compares very favorably with prior years, despite the shortened season.
Better surveyor documentation of environmental conditions provided us with the ability to analyze surveys and weather conditions. Full surveys were conducted in good weather conditions on 32 days. On 23 days, full or partial surveys took place under moderate or poor conditions. Only 1 survey day was completely cancelled, the first day of the season. These results nicely documented the mild and mostly good winter weather and will allow for future comparisons of weather, survey effort and sightings. Although whale sightings were few, our dedicated surveyors understood how important it was for the monitoring and effort to continue so as to add to our long-term data and verify that indeed the whales were not present. With each year of data, no matter if whales are many or few, our efforts increase in value.
Gusty winds kept survey hours in the AirCam to the second lowest in the six seasons that the Project has had the aircraft. In December, the AirCam flew a line parallel to the coast and 3 miles offshore along with its standard 1 mile coastal line. After the shore surveys began in January, the AirCam flew the 1 mile line north and south from St. Augustine inlet to the Cape Canaveral seashore area. Only three flights took place in February and two in March, due to the unfavorable wind conditions.
Our ability to obtain photographs capable of identifying right whales that we sight has steadily increased over the 12 years of the Project’s existence. This success is a combination of better equipment, the availability of the AirCam, the increasing knowledge and skill of our volunteers, and community awareness of the whales and the Hotline number. With just two sightings this season, the combination of all of the above resulted in a 100% success in obtaining these photos!
Some Thoughts on the Season
Two books, one published many years ago and one just recently, offer perspectives on this year’s survey results. The first is “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, underlining the message that “…all things are connected.” The connection goes across space and time. The low number of calves born in 2012 may be explained by the fact that in the summer of 2010, there were record warm temperatures in the right whales’ northern feeding areas and copepod production was low and/or of poor quality. This compromised food source may have resulted in fewer whales entering into reproductive condition and behavior, resulting in fewer calves. If this connection does exist, then next season is likely to be a more productive year, since water temperatures were closer to normal and copepod levels were good last summer and fall. The second thought comes from D. Graham Burnett’s “The Sounding of the Whale” who, after some 675 pages, concluded that “…knowing things is hard.” We know first hand, in our muscles and in our hearts, that this is true.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Based on the consistent observations made by all of the Teams and what we are seeing in the rest of the Southeast, we have decided that we will have enough data to characterize this exceptional season with one more week of surveys. The last day for our 2012 right whale season surveys will be this Monday, 27 February.
However, we encourage everyone to continue with opportunistic observations as opportunities arise, particularly those with waterfront homes. The AirCam will fly for the next several weeks to keep an eye on things, too.
This certainly will be a season that stands out in stark contrast to much of what we had come to expect from the whales. It’s what keeps science fresh and exciting!
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Valentine’s Day brought a glimmer of hope when Team 2 talked with an opportunistic spotter near Matanzas Inlet who reported seeing blows. Both Teams 1 and 2 made a valiant effort to locate and confirm the report, but could not. The next day, we received word through the MRC Hotline of a possible whale in Vilano. The FL Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s aerial team checked it out, and then we flew over the area with the AirCam later for another try. Neither of us could find a whale. Humpback? We can only wonder.
While the whales have been scarce, at least surveys in the warmer weather have been pleasant. That is, until the “no-see-ums,” tiny, gnat-like insects with a very unpleasant bite, began to swarm about a week or so ago. They are worst when winds are out of the west. Bring insect repellent with you for surveys.
The right whale calf count is holding at six (with one lost brings it down to five). The total count of whales documented in the SE US is 62 and the small group of whales remaining here is being sighted to the north in Georgia and South Carolina. We are not the only ones experiencing an unusual season. We have a report from Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (thanks Devon and Penny!) that the water temperature in Cape Cod Bay has been a couple of degrees higher than normal, the copepods favored by the right whales as food peaked earlier than usual and are now dropping off, resulting in the whales feeding earlier in the year and in what now appears to be an early departure of the whales from the Bay. PCCS reports that conditions are differing noticeably from those observed during the last 25 years of research.
What does this mean for us? It adds weight to our observations that this is an atypical season and underlines the importance of continuing to watch and record as we have done in past seasons. Collectively, along with all of the research groups up and down the coast, we will gather information and hopefully draw conclusions about right whales, the ocean, and the environment in 2012. A huge thank you for your persistence and dedication.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Without a doubt, this 12th survey season has been our most unusual. There has been only one whale documented in our area. The Sector 5 survey team sighted this yearling calf of #1245 on January 24th in South Daytona. The mother herself was last seen in our area off Crescent Beach in 2005 with a previous calf and we have not observed her in our study area since then.
Six mother/calf pairs have been identified to date. A new mother, whale #1208, with her sixth calf, was confirmed after the Gathering. However, our colleagues at the New England Aquarium estimated the potential number of calving females in this population at 100, raising the hope that additional mother/calf pairs could be sighted and the question of why have there been so few to date.
Looking at the sighting history prior to the start of the Marineland Right Whale Project, there was a similar unusual situation in the 2000 season with 28 total right whale sightings and only 1 mother/calf pair. In that season, there were no sightings south of St. Augustine. There is a similarity in that the 1999-2000 season also had warm water temperatures.
These unusual situations are not confined to the Southeast US waters. Similar results have occurred in the whales’ northern feeding habitat. For 31 years, the New England Aquarium has surveyed right whales in the Bay of Fundy during the summer and fall. In the 2010 season, these scientists recorded the smallest number of sightings and the fewest number of right whales in their 31-year history. The surface water temperature in the Bay was warmer than normal and may have diminished the copepod numbers. This correlation is still being examined as well as the possible effect on the whales migrating to our waters. Scientists have speculated about a two-year lag between the abundance of summer food resources for the whales and calving rates.
In the face of a highly variable population that is very difficult to predict, as scientists and citizen-scientists, the only way to begin to understand what is happening and to draw meaningful conclusions is to maintain a consistent sampling effort. Although we may feel that “nothing is happening,” the exact opposite is true. We are helping to demonstrate that there is a dramatic shift in right whale distribution that seems to correlate with elevated water temperature.
We are one of six teams from North Carolina to Florida who are on the job monitoring the right whales. We aren’t alone in this effort. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission team to the north of us has frequently come up empty handed as well. To the south, the Marine Resources Council likewise continues their monitoring for right whale sightings, with few calls. It doesn’t seem to be “our year” for sightings, but it is our year for contributing to science.
As we like to say; “Every day, every season and every whale is different.”
Sunday, January 29, 2012
This week brought another new calf, bringing the total for the season to five. Right whale #3390 was spotted on 25 January off Ponte Vedra with her first calf by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s aerial survey team. We also received news from our colleagues that right whale #1301, Half Note, was seen several times without her calf. This is the third calf in a row that Half Note has lost.
The fast-moving youngster seen in our area last week was identified by the New England Aquarium as the yearling of right whale #1245. This whale and its mother were absent from our list of whales seen last season. We did receive opportunistic sighting reports of a right whale in Daytona last Thursday, but could not confirm it. Thanks to Team 5 for their search effort.
Sightings continue to dribble in from up to the north of us, near the Florida/Georgia border, but the number of mother-calf pairs remains low. We still hold out hope. A summary by the New England Aquarium suggests that there may be around 100 females that could calve this season. Will water temperatures change? Will the whales appear in our area? We don’t know. This is why we do what we do, collect data that will allow meaningful comparisons with other seasons and, eventually, give us greater insight into the whales’ behavior. We will continue to survey and to report.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Our brand new Sector 5 south survey team claims the honor of being first to sight a right whale this season. The single adult/juvenile sighted late yesterday afternoon was spotted by the team this morning from Van Avenue Park in South Daytona Beach. As we saw yesterday, the whale surfaced infrequently and was swimming south at a rapid pace. It was a great catch on the team’s part, particularly since the whale headed further offshore to avoid the Ponce Inlet jetty.
An observant opportunistic spotter also called the MRC’s Right Whale Hotline, giving the response team reports from two sources. The AirCam arrived around 11:30 am and had to fly several search patterns before spotting the whale. It submerged for 14 minutes before surfacing again long enough for identification photos. We are still working on a tentative ID for this whale.
Between yesterday afternoon and today, this lone right whale covered 47 nmi in 19 hours, an average speed of 2.5 knots. The fastest whale we have documented in our study area was another single on 13 February 2007, swimming at 2.9 knots.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
The cold weather that greeted surveyors this morning brings with it an increased likelihood of seeing whales. To date, we have not had a single sighting in the Project’s area, but there is hope. On Tuesday, 10 January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aerial survey team finally documented a right whale south of Jacksonville. Half Note (RW#1301) and her calf were photographed just over 7 nmi east of Jacksonville Beach. There are now three mother/calf pairs and about 30 other right whales that have been provisionally identified in the SE US.
What’s taking so long for the whales to make their appearance in our area? The mild air temperatures that we enjoyed last week have slowed the cooling of water temperatures, which hovered in the mid- to upper-60’s until this latest cold front arrived. As further evidence of warmer than average water, the AirCam crews have sighted manta rays as far north as Marineland, a first in the Project’s 12 seasons. Jim Hain compared sea surface temperatures over the last few weeks with previous seasons and observed that they mirror temperatures recorded in 2009, also a “warm” and “late” season. In 2009, the first right whale, a single, was documented on 5 January. The first mother/calf pair appeared on 14 January that year and we continued to have sightings well into March, with the last one on the 25th. Sea surface temperatures in 2009 remained cool until well into the spring.
The area of cooler water, in the 50’s, along the Georgia/Florida coast is growing and expanding south, and should encourage the whales in our direction. Winds have grounded the aerial teams since Tuesday and may continue for another several days. If the whales are moving south, it’s up to the surveyors and opportunistic spotters to catch them!