Friday, February 19, 2016

Right Whale Double-Header

Any day that contains a right whale sighting is a day to celebrate. To have two mother and calf pairs in one day? That’s over the top!

On Wednesday, 17 February, flying southbound on the 1.5 nm track line, the Air Cam crew was startled (and thrilled!) when the first pair surfaced almost next to the right side of the aircraft just south of Sunglow Pier in Daytona Beach Shores. We were not surprised, however, since Catalog #3450 (Clipper) and calf had been confirmed just north of Ponce Inlet the day before. As the Air Cam circled for photos, the mother’s tail came to the surface, and it had two complete flukes. This was not Clipper! Instead, we provisionally identified them later as Catalog #4094 with her first calf.

In this photo, the calf has its flukes draped over the mother’s rostrum.

Our first sighting of #4094 came in January of 2011 when she was a yearling and part of a large aggregation of some 13 right whales spread out in small groups from Granada Blvd. in Ormond Beach to south of Main Street Pier in Daytona. We also saw her again in the 2014 season, a year before she would become pregnant with her current calf.

Continuing south, the Air Cam crew harbored the hope that Catalog #3450 (Clipper) was out there and she did not disappoint. Returning northbound on the 0.5 nm track line, the crew spotted her and the calf about 4 nm south of Ponce Inlet. The two were quite close to shore, just beyond the surf line in turbid water. The calf was very active, swimming around, under and over Clipper. In this photo, the calf has its chin on Clipper’s back.

On the ground, Jim made calls to volunteers, Volusia Beach Safety, and the Marine Discovery Center. Numerous people responded and sent reports and photos of both sightings throughout the afternoon. It was a very effective synergy!

We showed a video that nicely described Clipper’s adventures in Sebastian Inlet. Here is a link to view it on Vimeo: Jim presented plots of dates showing the first and last sightings of the season in previous years and described the data as having a great deal of variability. He underlined how the complexity of short and long term weather and climate cycles and trends make predictions of right whale behavior very difficult.

The Project has a new research tool to enhance collection of right whale behavior. We recently acquired a DJI Phantom 3 Pro Unmanned Aircraft (drone). We also received the necessary NOAA Fisheries permit and FAA authorization for approaching right whales with the UA. We demonstrated it at the Gathering and one of our volunteers videoed the short flight.