Sunday, January 29, 2012

Right Whale Gains and Losses

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

First Right Whale Sets a Rapid Pace South

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

Waiting for Whales

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!