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!