Sunday, February 17, 2013

Marineland Right Whale Mid-Season Update

A total of 18 right whale mother/calf pairs have been identified so far this season. Seventeen were sighted in the SE US and one in Cape Cod Bay. Approximately 17 other adult/juveniles have also been identified.

We have learned that this whale was identified by the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Catalog curators as the 2011 calf of Whale #3293, named Porcia. The small size of the beached whale had led investigators to initially conclude that it was a yearling. When no matches to last year’s calves could be made, the Catalog staff began looking at 2-year-olds and made the match to this juvenile. Although we did not sight Whale #3293 and her male calf in our area (between St. Augustine and Ponce Inlets) in 2011, Jim Hain and crew encountered them in the acoustic research vessel about 10 nm ENE of St. Augustine Inlet on 14 February (Valentine’s Day).

The final report on the cause of death for this whale is still pending.

In the nearly 30 years of monitoring whale populations in Cape Cod Bay, this is the first time that a mother and calf right whale pair has been documented in the Bay in winter. First discovered on 12 January in Plymouth, the calf was determined to be too small, and thus too young, to have been born in the Southeast and migrated north with its mother, Whale #1140, Wart. Mother and calf were spotted again and confirmed on 21 January in the Bay. On 29 January, scallop fishermen reported the two, but confirmation was not possible. At that time, the water temperature in the Bay was 41˚F, cause for concern for the long-term survival of the calf, but reports suggest that mother and calf appear healthy.

On a local note, Wart is the mother of Whale #3540, Blackheart, who we saw from the AirCam on 19 December off Crescent Beach with her first calf—two more generations.

Right whales are the least cooperative and most difficult of the great whales to assist when they are entangled in fishing gear. Braving certain risk to attempt disentanglement, the highly trained teams often do not know if the benefit to the whales outweighs the significant stress caused by the procedure. This season there are three examples of benefit to the whales individually and to the species as a whole, as three previously entangled whales gave birth to calves. They are; Whale #1140, Wart (see above), Whale #3294, Equator, whom we have not seen in our area, and Whale #2753, Arpeggio, a whale quite familiar to us, who became our record-holder for the earliest whale to arrive in our area, making an appearance on 29 November 2012. There has been concern that entanglements affect calf production, but here are three examples where disentangled females have continued on.

Tagged last September in Cape Cod Bay, the great white shark given the name “Mary Lee” made headlines in early January when her satellite tag showed her to be along the shoreline in Jacksonville Beach. Her presence in the area at the same time as right whales raised the concern that she may have been drawn by the presence of the calves. Although photos have documented great whites scavenging a dead right whale carcass, there hasn’t been evidence gathered of an attack on a healthy right whale calf. When tagged, Mary Lee was 16 ft. long and weighed 3,456 lbs., which could present a threat to a calf were it not for its, on average, 50 ft. long and 60 ton mother, who would be a formidable obstacle to any shark attack. As it happens, Mary Lee did not stick around. Less than a month later, on 3 February, her satellite tag showed her on the edge of the continental shelf offshore from New York. You can follow Mary Lee and other tagged great white sharks at

Our survey season began in the best way possible, with a mother/calf sighting on the morning of the first day, 6 January. Whale #2413 with her fourth calf was spotted in Crescent Beach. As reported earlier, she lost her third calf in 2011. We saw her in December 2010 with that calf, as well as in 2005 and 2003 with previous calves. One of the many benefits of a long-term research effort is the opportunity to develop a history with returning whales and their offspring.

After a significant dry spell, two juveniles turned up on 23 January. We have seen both whales in previous seasons. Whale #3860, a female born in 2008, was here in 2009 and 2010, but we did not see her as a calf, nor have we seen her mother, Whale #2040 in our area. Naturally, it is possible that we missed seeing them if they happened to be here when the weather was too poor for surveys or they remained far enough offshore. The other juvenile, Whale #4057 and gender unknown, we saw six times in 2010 as the first calf of Whale #3157.

The AirCam crew spotted a humpback whale on 28 January, north of SR206 in Crescent Beach. In past seasons, humpbacks tended to appear in December and May, following the humpback migration to Silver Bank offshore from the Dominican Republic. This season, humpbacks are being sighted through January, so it’s a good idea to be aware of the differences between them and right whales. When surfacing, humpbacks roll much like a dolphin and have a dorsal fin about 2/3 of the way down their backs. These are the characteristics you are most likely to see. They also have long white pectoral fins.

On 3 February, a late afternoon call to the Marine Resources Center’s Hotline alerted us to a mother and calf in front of the boardwalk in the Town of Marineland. These were identified as Whale #1612 and her sixth calf. We also learned that the calf, sometime between 21 and 29 January, had been struck by a vessel, as evidenced by scarring on its back. When the pair appeared off Beverly and Flagler Beaches on 5 February, then Ormond Beach on 6 February, we took great care to document these wounds. If you look closely at the photo to the right where the arrow is pointing to the calf’s back, you will see the short white parallel marks of the prop and the long, perpendicular line of the engine’s skeg. It appears that the injuries were relatively minor and are healing well. The calf looks robust and was acting normally, a good indication that it will recover in time.

Early on 8 February, a MRC hotline call turned up a single right whale in Daytona Beach. Jim Pearson, Sector 5 surveyor, was able to locate the whale and follow it as it dashed south. By the time the response team arrived with the camera, it was in South Daytona and headed out to sea. Although we confirmed it as a right whale, it was too far out for photos.

Many thanks to those of you who have contributed to the Marineland Right Whale Project by making your online purchases using the website Since we began using this website in April 2012, your contributions have amounted to $670 that otherwise would have gone to web search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing as a commission. We appreciate these donations that help to fund the Project’s operating expenses such as fuel for the AirCam. Using this website won't cost you a penny more for your online purchases and it is considered a charitable donation!

If you haven’t used this website for your online purchases and would like assistance, or have questions, please call Becki Smith on 703-304-7832, She will gladly assist you.

Seeking to better understand what influences right whale movement, we have become attuned to the weather. We review forecast maps, looking for high pressure centers that signal good survey weather. We study jet stream charts, that high altitude wind current that can channel cold Canadian air into our area and lower water temperatures. Published reports suggest that right whales seem to prefer 15˚C to 16˚C water. In 2010, when Florida experienced one of its coldest winters on record, we had our highest number of sightings in a season, 63. Last season, coastal temperatures in our area averaged around 18˚C and we had two sightings. Our temperatures for this season have been similar, and we have had nine sightings so far. The greatest number of right whale sightings is north of us, near the Florida and Georgia border, where colder water appears to be developing, but it not yet in the 16˚C range.

The question of climate change is a definite issue. We wonder whether we are seeing a warming trend or a short-tem variation. Whichever it is, a variety of species are definitely being affected. Butterflies and birds are shifting their distribution. So, the question about right whales could be the same - will we see a change in the trend of right whale distribution? Our work is getting more challenging.

In the current recognized population of 509 right whales, there are now about 100 potential reproductive females. So, there should be 25-30 new calves born each season. The number of births this year is certainly well below that number. The reasons for this low birth rate are not fully understood and are under investigation.

The culmination of scientific investigation is to publish results in peer-reviewed journals. We recently published an article titled “Swim speed, behavior and movement of North Atlantic right whales (Eubaleana glacialis) in coastal waters of northeastern Florida, USA,” J. Hain, J. Hampp, S. McKenney, J. Albert, and R. Kenney, PLoS ONE 8(1): e54340. PLoS (Public Library of Science) is a wholly electronic-based collection and represents a growing trend of publishing scientific journals online.

We are interested in the behavior of right whales, particularly in the learning and development of calves. We would like to better understand how the mother imparts important life skills to her calf. Video is a more effective way to capture play and other behaviors, along with how close approaches from humans (i.e. paddleboarders, surfers, kayakers and boaters) may impact mother/calf interactions. Cameras that attach to our very long lens are now much better at shooting video. We will be incorporating more video recording during sightings.