Monday, February 20, 2012

Right Whale Surveys Ending Early

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

Warm Weather, No Whales, and Now…Insects!

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

Mid-Season Status Report

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.”