Thursday, April 25, 2013

End-Of-Season Report

Right Whale Sightings
In the Southeast region, from South Carolina to NE Florida, the final number of mother/calf pairs sighted was 19. About 21 other whales were also identified, bringing the total to about 59 right whales sighted in the Southeast for this season. Including the mother/calf pair in Cape Cod, having 20 calves born was a welcome improvement from the seven of last season. Missing from the Southeast were the large numbers of juvenile whales that had been making the journey in previous seasons, with the exception of last year. Where they spent the winter is not fully understood.

The relationship between sea surface temperatures and right whale movements continued into the latter half of our season. The area of colder water around 16˚C never developed further south than Jacksonville. Plotting right whale sightings in the Southeast for the several days around 1 February (generally the coldest days of the season), revealed that most of the whales were located around the Florida/Georgia border. A similar pattern was observed in 1999, also a warm winter. It remains to be seen if warmer winters and alterations in right whale distribution are related to climate change. Our work is becoming more challenging.

The Marineland Right Whale Project had ten sightings, a below average number for us, but far better than the two of last season. Eight were of mother/calf pairs and included five different females with their calves. Observing 25% of the total number of mothers and calves in the Project’s study area is about average, with the exception of last year, when all of the mother/calf pairs remained well to the north.

The other two sightings consisted of a pair of juveniles on 23 January and a single right whale that moved through Daytona Beach so rapidly on 8 February that we were unable to take photos to identify it. In addition, there was the 2-year-old entangled male that came ashore on 19 December.

Humpback Whale Sightings
Throughout the season, we responded to humpback whale reports or spotted them from the Air Cam. We positively identified six as humpbacks, including three from the Air Cam. Six more we listed as probable, based on behavior and descriptions from surveyors and others present. In previous seasons, humpbacks were more likely to been seen in December/early January and March/April rather than throughout the season. They appeared to be juveniles. Comparing notes and photos with our colleagues at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, we learned that some of the humpbacks were seen more than once along the Florida coast. Perhaps, these whales are remaining in the Southeast US instead of migrating to their wintering habitat on Silver Bank near the Dominican Republic? More investigation is warranted.

Shore Surveys
In ten weeks (and a total of 70 days), the nine teams compiled 1,814 survey hours. Thanks to all for the diligent recording of environmental conditions during surveys.

Human Impacts
On 5 February, several people used paddle boards to closely approach Whale #1612 and her calf, who bore scars from a recent vessel strike. Thankfully, no one was injured. Concerned about the potential danger to humans and the impact of harassment to the whales, we met with both Flagler Beach City and Flagler County Law Enforcement, reviewing the 500 yard no-approach rule and emphasizing the human safety issue. We encountered a very positive response. We are now looking at ways to reach the board sports community.