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.”