Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Second Right Whale Identified and Humpback Sighted

With the help of additional photos, including some from David Ogg of Mobile Team 3 (one is to the right), the second right whale in the 23 January sighting has been identified as Whale #4057. This juvenile was born in 2010 and we saw him/her (gender unknown) as a calf six times in January and February. The following December, we sighted him/her again as a yearling. The identity of Whale #3860 also was confirmed, so we have previous history with both of these whales.

Our colleagues with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) documented these two juveniles on 26 January about 13 nm SE of the St. Johns River Inlet during their aerial survey. The whales didn’t stay in our area for long, but what a treat they gave us!

On Monday, 28 January, the AirCam survey team discovered a humpback whale off Crescent Beach near State Road 206. It remained mostly submerged, surfacing only to breathe. We were able to obtain photographs that Katie Jackson of FWCC compared to those of two other humpbacks sighted by their aerial teams. Our photographs were of a different whale. Note the long white pectoral fins and small dorsal fin about 2/3’s along the whale’s back from its head that differentiate it from a right whale.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Whale Drought Ends

Sixteen long, empty, lonely days ... and then ... YAHOO! The phone rang at 08:00 on Wednesday morning, 23 January. Julie Albert from Marine Resources Council relayed a hotline call from Ken and Lonnie Merrifield, Canadians from Port Elgin on Lake Huron who are vacationing here for several months, and who attended Jim's right whale talk at Gamble Rogers State Park on 12 January. They picked up the phone card, and knew what to do! Their initial sighting was from the Ocean Beach Club II in South Flagler Beach at 07:50, and we tracked the pair south until 14:30 when they were off Capistrano Drive in Ormond Beach. The sea state was at least 4 and probably 5, but volunteers kept them in sight for 6 1/2 hrs. We thought we were looking at a mother-calf pair, but, because the "younger" animal had fully developed callosities, we wondered whether it was a mother and a yearling.
Conferring with Katie Jackson, our colleague on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission team, we were told, in fact, they were likely both juveniles. The whale with the "broken" callosity pattern is tentatively identified as Whale #3860, while the whale with the "continuous" pattern is not identified at present. If confirmed, Whale #3860 is a female born in 2008. We saw her in the '09 and '10 seasons, and Julie at MRC saw her in the '11 season off of Indian Harbor Beach in the Melbourne area. We are told that both of these individuals are new reports for this season. Compliments to all for a job well done!

For more information on callosity patterns and how to identify right whales, visit the Associated Scientists website, www.aswh.org, and download the “Volunteer Handbook” toward the bottom of the Home page.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Where the Whales Are

We began the season with a handful of sightings. Now, for more than a week, the majority of whale sightings are being reported from the Jacksonville area and north. To see an interactive map of whale sightings along the entire East Coast, click on this link; http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/protected_resources/right_whale/. This site allows you to display sightings based on various time frames.

Whales and weather are hard to predict. An interesting note is that most of the Southeast US sightings to date are of mother and calf pairs. Very few of the sightings in the last couple of weeks have been of singles or pairs and none of large SAGs (Surface Active Groups). Will the cooler weather bring a change?

As if the season wasn’t unusual enough, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, headquartered in Provincetown on Cape Cod, posted Saturday, 12 Jan. on its Facebook page a photo of whale #1140, named Wart, with a calf swimming in Cape Cod Bay! The mother and calf pair were never sighted in the SEUS, making them the 14th mother/calf pair this winter. Coincidentally, whale #1140 is the mother of whale #3540, Blackheart, who we saw on 19 December with her first calf just north of SR 206 in Crescent Beach. Two more mother/calf pairs were identified recently from aerial photos off the Georgia coast, so the total for the season is now sixteen calves. Very good news indeed!

Additionally, in the last week we have learned that a mother and calf right whale were reported from Miami and the Key Biscayne area on 9 January. Recall back in December 2005 when we sighted a rapidly moving southbound mother/calf pair (#2503) that subsequently was sighted off Miami and went into the Gulf of Mexico. Anything can happen, and sometimes does! These events underline that, although we can draw some conclusions from observations of general whale movement based on sea surface temperatures, individual whales can show great variability, and we do not know all of the factors and how they influence the whales.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mother and Calf Pair Starts Our Survey Season on the “Right” Track

Two hours and eleven minutes into our first day of dedicated surveys, Joy Hampp (Project Coordinator) happened to be at a public walkover about a mile north of Matanzas Inlet waiting for Mobile Team 1 to arrive when her eyes spotted a disturbance in the water just to the north. Yes, it was a right whale mother and calf! Even better, it turned out to be right whale #2413, who lost her third calf in 2011, but is now happily back after a short interval with her fourth. We saw #2413 in 2011 with her calf, and then also in 2003 and 2005, so she is a regular to our study area between St. Augustine Inlet and Ponce Inlet. Now in our thirteenth season, the opportunity to observe these returning right whales is affording us insights into their biology.

Mother and calf moved slowly north along Crescent Beach, where no public access exists for miles. Thankfully, they remained within a half mile of the shoreline, so we employed a combination of inviting ourselves onto some private property and walking along the beach to take photos and collect data with the help of Team 1. In the photo, the mother’s head is pointing to the left. The calf, on the right, is on its right side, with its head on mom’s. The calf’s eye is visible and indicated with an arrow.

We followed the pair until 14:00. They hadn’t moved much in the last half hour and we had the photos and data we needed. What a promising way to start the season!