Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Right Whale Bonanza!

Sunday morning, 2 March, dawned with a thick blanket of fog over most of the coastline we survey, a condition we have faced quite often this season. To the very south, though, there was a break and, just after 8:30 AM, Debbie Cook, working the Sunglow Pier Bait Shop, called Becki with a whale sighting. Minutes later, Julie Albert with the Marine Resources Council Hotline, called Jim with a report from the same area. Doris and Robert Unger, Team 5, responded and confirmed right whales at Herron St. in Wilbur by the Sea. Jim and Pat Schubert headed south and Joy and Becki headed for the airport.

Doris and Robert held on to the whales until Jim and Pat could meet them around 11:15 AM at Winter Haven Park. They worked the sighting south and confirmed two right whales, but distance and fog prevented them from knowing if they were a mother/calf pair or two individuals. We needed the Air Cam. With the fog seeming to thin, Joy and Becki made final preparations and started the engines. At 12:17 PM, just as Joy was ready to taxi to the runway, Jim called and said to shut down, the fog had moved back in. Both teams grabbed some lunch and waited for the fog to clear again.

An hour later, conditions had improved, but the ground crew could not find the whales and assumed that they had moved south of Ponce Inlet. Fog was still clinging to the coast from Daytona north, so Joy and Jim decided to launch the Air Cam and fly inland to the south end of New Smyrna Beach, then out over the water and survey north with the sun behind them. At 3:30 PM, minutes after beginning to survey in New Smyrna, Joy and Becki spotted the whales and confirmed a mother/calf pair, Catalog #3546, along with a large number of dolphins. Photo attached. This pair had been sighted two days before, in the early evening, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) aerial observer house in S. Ponte Vedra.

Meanwhile, in St. Augustine, Penny Bellas of Team 1, frustrated at having to cancel the morning’s survey due to zero visibility, decided to conduct her own survey in mid-afternoon when the fog had finally dissipated. Arriving at Crescent Beach Park at 3:45 PM, she picked up her binoculars for a closer look at a slick area in the water and spotted a very tall V-blow followed by a black head. With a longer look, Penny realized she
likely had a mother/calf pair and called Jim. As soon as Joy and Becki had finished photographing the New Smyrna pair, Pat Schubert radioed the location of this new sighting and the Air Cam headed north. At 4:45 PM, Joy and Becki spotted this second pair, Catalog #2746, who we last saw on Valentine’s Day.

But wait, there’s more! The FWC aerial survey team sighted a third mother/calf pair, Catalog #3157, about 5 miles east of Flagler Pier, bringing the day’s count to three mother/calf pairs, all of whom came south in the last week. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise when Monday, 3 March, brought news of another sighting.

Team 5 was at Al Weeks Park, Ormond Beach, just getting their survey sheet ready when, at 8:02, Pat Lamee spotted a mother/calf pair. They moved slowly south and east. At mid-day, the calf became quite active and breached several times along with some tail-slapping, much to the delight of those watching. Conferring with our FWC colleagues, our photos do not appear to match any of the three mothers from Sunday! Stay tuned for an update!