Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sebastian Right Whale Adventure

The data we collect contributes to a greater understanding of trends in right whale behavior and habitat use, but we also are intensely interested in what we can learn from the “outliers,” the whales that make use of the edges of the habitat and beyond. Yesterday, 10 March, we assisted our colleague Julie Albert of Marine Resources Council (MRC) to confirm the identity of one such pair of outliers.

On Saturday, 8 March, mother and calf right whales were reported to the MRC Hotline and photographed at Jensen Beach (just north of Stuart, FL). The photos provided confirmation of the species, but not the identity. Yesterday, Julie received a Hotline call just before 9:00 AM reporting whales in Sebastian (south of Melbourne) from a surf fisherman who had kept the yellow phone card he’d received years ago. Julie contacted Jim to see if we could help and Jim called Joy to prepare for a possible flight to Sebastian.

Julie called again shortly before 11:30 AM to report that she had the whales in sight. The Air Cam was already flying south on its regular survey and we decided to continue on to Sebastian. Two hours later, Joy called Julie for the whales’ current position and within minutes, Joy and Becki were circling for photos above the beautiful turquoise water.

The pair is provisionally identified as Catalog #3546 with her first calf. They were previously photographed by the Air Cam on Sunday, 2 March in New Smyrna Beach and are likely the same whales seen in Jensen Beach on 8 March. Assisting MRC in this endeavor accomplished two objectives; we confirmed the whales’ unusual journey south of the right whale critical habitat and have a better idea of how to position the Air Cam to respond to sightings further afield if desirable.

Having flown so far from its home base in Hastings, the Air Cam landed at Sebastian Airport and took on necessary fuel for both aircraft and crew before making the two-plus hour return trip to Hastings. Based on continuing Hotline reports, the whales are headed north and could arrive in our survey area on Friday or Saturday, just in time for our last two days of dedicated survey!