Friday, February 28, 2014

What About All These Humpbacks?!

Tuesday morning (25 February) brought another humpback whale sighting, this time in Beverly Beach, near the two campgrounds and City Hall. Martha Demers of Team 3 was the first to spot the large black shape around 10:30 am. An alert observer at the Flagler-by-the-Sea campground also called Julie at the Marine Resources Council hotline. In previous seasons, humpback sightings seemed more common early in the season (November, December) and late in the season (March,April). To date, we have had several humpback sightings throughout this season. Who are these humpbacks and what are they doing here?

On the 25th Becki Smith took photos (image below) and we shared them with our colleagues at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), who have collected humpback whale photos for a number of years and have assembled an informal catalog
of the whales seen by the SE US survey teams. Humpbacks are usually photographically identified by the pattern of white splotches on the underside of their tail and the formal catalog is curated by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) on Cape Cod. But, unlike the situation in New England, the humpbacks here rarely raise their flukes. So we (collectively) have focused on dorsal fins and any body scars. Happily, these photos have been sufficient to distinguish between most individuals and indicate that some humpbacks are making repeat appearances. For example, yesterday’s humpback has a distinctive dorsal fin, and has been sighted twice before, on 30 December off Georgia and 9 February off Jacksonville Beach. Humpbacks, like right whales, appear to move around throughout the habitat.

Humpbacks are generally the same length as right whales, but are more slender and weigh less. Their more stream-lined shape allows them to swim faster and, thus, chase faster prey, such as the small bait fish that school in our coastal waters. Most of the SE US humpbacks appear to be juveniles. The PCCS has a dorsal fin catalog for humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine and has matched one humpback from the FWC catalog to a Gulf of Maine humpback. Hopefully, there will be more matches in the future and we will begin to have a better understanding of the humpbacks visiting our coastline.

Note: For a more complete description of humpback distinguishing characteristics with photos, see the “Right Whale Team Handbook” available as a PDF on

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Humpback Whales Show Off in Flagler Beach

Judy Bowman of Team 3 spotted blows, breaches and dorsal fins in south Beverly Beach around 9:30 this morning and reported multiple humpback whales. At the same time, Julie with the Marine Resources Council’s Right Whale Hotline relayed calls from other spotters at Flagler Beach. The Sighting Network at its best!

On this truly glorious day, a pair of humpbacks stayed relatively close to shore and quite active as they moved south, putting on a good show for everyone who came out to have a look. Dave and Maryanne Gustafson enabled Jim to locate our camera
on the roof of the Aliki, 15 stories tall, and photograph the whales from that excellent vantage point. In the image to the right, note the characteristic dorsal fin that readily identifies it as a humpback.

Whales Keep Us on Our Toes

Two sightings of whales yesterday, within six miles of each other and rather far out to sea, had us working hard to figure out exactly what we were observing and underlined the importance of good coordination and data collection.

Team 3 started with a sighting that appeared to be a right whale just after 9:30 AM to the northeast of Beverly Beach Town Hall. About an hour later, Becki was able to confirm it was a right whale from Flagler-By-The-Sea Campground. As Jim headed south with the camera, Team 2 called that they had whales at Malacompra Avenue in the Hammock. Jim detoured there and eventually saw the backs and blows of what he thought at the time were two whales, but they were too far out for photos.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) aerial survey plane was reasonably close, and Jim contacted them about our sightings. About an hour later, they confirmed a humpback whale east of Malacompra. Considering how far from shore the whales were in both sightings, we began to wonder if we really had seen right whales. The FWC team checked further south where Team 3 had reported their sighting and located a single right whale, heading steadily south. Yes, Team 3 had seen a right whale!

The single continued south, videotaped by Dale Hench at the Nautilus Condo in S. Flagler Beach around 4:00 PM. We thought it might be an adult male,
Catalog #2510, that the Air Cam had photographed on Monday, one-and-a half-miles offshore from Crescent Beach, heading steadily south, surfacing only briefly to breathe. Our colleagues at FWC told us that yesterday’s single was a different whale, young, perhaps a yearling or two-year-old, who will be harder to identify.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

New Right Whale Arrivals

Braving the chill of Valentine’s Day in the open cockpit of the Air Cam, Joy and Becki were rewarded with sighting Catalog #2746 and her third calf 1.5 nm east of Marineland. This is the first time we have documented this whale in our area. Jim, observing from the Marineland Boardwalk, could barely make them out and they disappeared quickly.

The number of calves documented in the SE US grew by two in the last few days and now totals eight. Both new additions are familiar to us. Catalog #3157 was sighted off Ponte Vedra on 10 February. In 2010, the Air Cam team was the first to sight her with her first calf and we saw her another four times. Catalog #3546 was seen yesterday off Georgia. We first made her acquaintance in 2005 when she was a calf with her mother, Catalog #1246. We also documented her in 2009, 2010, and 2011 in the company of other whales. Perhaps, both of these mothers will come our way this season!

Team 3 was barely on watch yesterday when Julie (Marine Resources Council Right Whale Hotline) called with a sighting report of three to four whales at the south end of Beverly Beach. Although the team and Becki did not sight the whales, they met a couple from the nearby campground who had seen them earlier and had a photo that clearly showed a dorsal fin, confirming humpbacks.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Boomerang Makes It Four

The call came early. At 07:39, Julie at the Marine Resources Council Right Whale Hotline called. Someone (didn't leave name or call back number) called the Volusia County Beach Patrol ... whales at around 1900 A1A in Daytona. Becki subsequently relayed the info to Team 5 who verified the sighting from Andy Romano Park. Jim got on the road with Pat Schubert as the response team... and they joined the Team in Ormond Beach.

On a clear calm day, the mother (quickly identified as Catalog #2503, Boomerang) and calf moved slowly north. The survey team jumped north to the Cardinal Street Beach Patrol station and then to the Grenada Waterfront Park. Joy and Becki arrived in the AirCam around 11:15. 

Then ... we got another call from John and Elaine Kelley. More whales to the south. This one turned out to be a robust, healthy looking, humpback who came north to Grenada and then doubled back south. We returned our attention to Boomerang and calf, and the last sighting was from the North County Beach Patrol tower at 13:33. The whales were still coming north, but had moved east a bit. The Traveling Trevallies joined us at several stops. They picked a good week to help out!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Boomerang Circles Back South

The weather has been quite trying this season. Fog, wind, and rain have together and separately, made surveys miserable and impossible. Yet, those who have persisted have been rewarded. Today was one of those days when the odds of finding a whale seemed like a shot in the dark. This time it was higher than forecast winds whipping up white caps to fool the eye. Julie Ogg Zitka, with Team 3 at their next-to-last survey point at the Golden Lion Restaurant around 11:30 AM, beat the odds and caught Catalog #2503, Boomerang, and her calf on their way south again.

The timing couldn’t be better. It’s the perfect way to begin the second half of our season and to welcome back the Traveling Trevallies, volunteers with the Georgia Aquarium, for their fifth season of helping us for a week with surveys.

From the Golden Lion, the action, and many of our volunteers, moved out to the end of Flagler Pier as the pair lingered there, changing direction several times, before swimming steadily south. The wind and sea state abated as the afternoon wore on, improving conditions for everyone who stopped by to take a look. By 3:30 PM, mother and calf were passing Gamble Rogers State Park and we lost them shortly thereafter. Tomorrow’s weather looks to be near perfect. Let’s see if we can spot these whales again!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Boomerang Returns

The fog smothering our coastline for the last few days finally lifted yesterday morning to reveal Whale #2503, Boomerang, and her calf just off the shoreline of Crescent Beach. Diane Lane spotted them from her condo balcony around 10:00 AM and called her husband, David, who was surveying with Team 1. Confirming the sighting from the Lane’s balcony, the team called it in around 10:30 AM. Joy and Becki were making final preparations for an Air Cam survey and arrived to photograph the pair an hour later.

In the photo to the right, there is almost a body length separating the two and we saw this behavior several times while circling overhead. In past seasons, this separation has been observed with older calves, more toward the end of the season, as they begin to gain a bit of independence from the mother. The first sighing of Boomerang was on 20 January with the calf, so the calf’s age cannot be pinpointed, yet it appears to be fairly young and would be expected to remain closer to its mother. Did the close proximity to shore provide a safer environment for greater separation? Do right whales have different mothering styles? Ah, the questions…they never end!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Right Whales Fill the Void

Our long dry spell of no whale sightings broke this morning with a call from Julie Albert of the Marine Resources Council’s Right Whale Hotline around 8:15 AM with a report of whales in Ormond Beach. It was quite a catch, considering the fog blanketing the coast! Team 4 deployed in several locations. It was an exercise in patience and persistence…the visibility was often less than ¼ mile, but it paid off. First, Elaine and John Kelley spotted what proved to be mother and calf right whales at SR 44, Grenada Blvd., Ormond Beach, and then Larry Bell spotted them from Amsden Road, where the response team of Jim and Joy joined them to take photos.

The pair is provisionally identified as Whale #2503, Boomerang, with her 3rd calf.On 4 December 2005, we photographed Boomerang with her first calf as they swam past Marineland and into history; this is the whale that took her calf all the way to Corpus Christi, Texas in January. Boomerang returned to the SE US in 2009 with calf #2, but we did not see her south of St. Augustine Inlet.
The two swam north a short way, then turned south, changing directions several times, before swimming slowly south past Grenada Blvd, close in, for good photos in the best visibility of the day. We left them shortly after 3 PM, about 2 miles south of Grenada Blvd.

But wait, the day got better! Julie from MRC called again, at 1:15 PM, with another reported sighting, this time from Ocean Trace in St. Augustine. We were too far away to respond, so she notified our colleagues with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and they responded by land and sea. This, too, was a mother and calf pair, Whale #2040, Naevus, whom we had not seen south of the St. Augustine Inlet prior to this sighting. Now, this is the way to end a dry spell!