Sunday, May 7, 2017

Right Whale Calf #5 Sighted

On Sunday, 30 April 2017, an aerial survey team from the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, sighted a new mother-calf pair east of Nantucket, in the Great South Channel. The mother was identified as Catalog #1515, first sighted as an adult in 1985, and currently greater than 31 years of age. She was last seen in 2009 in Florida with a calf. Then, she went unseen for the next seven years. As with Catalog #1414, this individual is rarely seen, and much of her life history is unknown.

There are intriguing questions. How is it that these two senior females, with sparse sighting records, converge in the Cape Cod area in 2017 with calves? Where did they come from? Were they simply unsighted in the Southeast US, or, did they have their calves elsewhere? Of the five mothers reported so far for the 2017 season, four are 30 years of age or older. Where are the younger reproductive age females? 

We have had some history with female #1515. On 7 February 2009 she was photographed by the AirCam team with her calf off Hammock Dunes, seen at right. Later that month, on the 21st, the AirCam team documented them again, off Daytona Beach.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Season Summary and Recent News

Cape Cod: Good News, Bad News

All three mother-calf pairs observed in the SEUS this season (but not by us), including the elusive Catalog #1711 and calf, have successfully made the 800-mile migration north and been sighted in Cape Cod Bay. In addition, the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) discovered a fourth mother, Catalog #1412, in Cape Cod Bay. This female is rarely seen during any of the regular survey efforts; the last report was from Iceland in June 2003.

In contrast to the low count from the SEUS, the Cape Cod area has experienced a record high count. On Friday, 14 April, the CCS aerial survey crew spotted 206 individual right whales, or about 40% of the population. This gives hope to the idea that the population has not experienced a catastrophic event, but rather, was somewhere else (Where is still the big question!)

On this same day, there was some bad news (also from Cape Cod) with the sighting of a dead juvenile female. The cause of her death has not been conclusively determined. The 27-foot whale was the 2016 calf of Catalog #4094. We have some
history with this mother-calf pair; the AirCam crew sighted them on 17 February 2016 about 1 3/4 miles off the beach in South Daytona. This was a young mother with her first calf. After nursing and weaning, a year later, the calf is dead.

Season-End Event

We gathered to review our 2017 season at the Whitney Lab auditorium on Saturday, 25 March. Jim presented an overview, the issues facing right whales, and questions and possibilities for the 2018 season.













Next, Joy gave a presentation on our core asset―our people. Check out this video of the various teams and highlights of the season:


video

An April Scramble

On the morning of 17 April, our colleagues with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) received a fisherman’s report of whales off the St. Augustine Pier, heading south. Conducting follow-up interviews, the FWC team concluded that the sighting might be mother-calf right whales and contacted us to assist with verifying it. We made calls and, together with FWC, fanned out between the Pier and Washington Oaks. No whales! On the next day, 18 April, the AirCam team flew a manta ray survey and kept eyes peeled. No whales! Later that day, a call came in to the MRC Hotline from Daytona Beach. This report turned out to be rafts of Sargassum weed.

Fundraising

Thanks to the many of you who have contributed, we have reached our Level One Goal ($10,000). A success indeed! To date, a total of 53 have donated, with Survey Team One having the highest number of checks arriving in our hands. For those of you who may have an unused envelope, and are willing and able, your donation checks (made out to ASWH, and mailed to 9741 Ocean Shore Blvd., St. Augustine, FL 32080-8618) will be gratefully accepted.

The Future

We will continue to send periodic updates during the off-season, and in the fall as we approach the 2018 season.

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J.H. and J.H., MRWP

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Different Kind of “Whale”

With sea surface temperatures warming significantly, we began our manta ray surveys on Wednesday, 29 March. Flying south on our 1.5 nm track line, abeam of Ormond-By-The-Sea, we spotted a very large whale-shaped form about a half mile off our left side. Banking around to take a closer look, we realized that we were seeing a whale shark, so close to the surface that its dorsal and tail fins were slightly above water, slowly swimming south. This is the first time that we have ever seen a whale shark during our aerial surveys. Of course, we took photos!


As the name implies, whale sharks are true sharks and the largest in the shark family. Their skeleton is composed of cartilage instead of bone, but, unlike their fearsome cousins, whale sharks feed on plankton. Females can grow to over 40 ft. The one we saw was probably just under 20 ft., likely a juvenile Still, it was a thrill to see!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Survey Season to End Early

After evaluating the lack of right whales in the Southeast US and the absence of sightings in our survey area, we have decided to end our survey season two weeks early. The last surveys will take place on Sunday, 26 February. We made a similar adjustment to our survey season in 2012, when we had a total of two sightings of the same juvenile right whale.
We are deeply appreciative of the continued diligence and enthusiasm that our volunteers have shown in maintaining survey effort. It is by this dedication that we can conclude that the whales are absent.
The Air Cam will continue to survey once a week throughout March. Despite the early end to our season, there is always room for the unexpected.  Volunteers, beach goers, mariners, and fishermen, are encouraged to continue to scan the ocean. If and when a whale (including a humpback) is sighted, please note time and location, photograph if you are able, and call toll-free 1-888-979-4253 (1-888-97-WHALE), or the Marineland project number, (904) 923-5050.
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Media Coverage

The St. Augustine Record published a good article on the program and season results on page 3A, today, Tuesday, 14 February. It can be seen online here:

We expect a similar article in the News-Journal this week.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Humpback Revealed

The humpback whale that has caused our phones to ring over the last several days was finally captured on camera. Photographer Tony Caruso of Flagler Beach sent us images he took on 24 Jan. at 11:30 AM from N 23rd St. One example is shown here. 


Yesterday, 25 January, following on a call from Team 4 in Ormond-by-the-Sea, the Air Cam crew spotted it as well, about a mile and a half east of Flagler Pier. The whale was surfacing briefly and intermittently, and observer Terry Clark caught it just before the Air Cam flew past it. The humpback was swimming steadily northbound and the plane circled for nearly 20 minutes before Terry obtained enough photos. Below is one with the distinguishing characteristics highlighted.














Along with the humpback, the Air Cam crew also observed several manta rays breaching, which have also caused the phone to ring. This behavior involves the large rays hurtling out of the water, flipping headfirst upside down, and hitting the water on their backs, resulting in a very large and dramatic splash. The black back followed by a quick glimpse of the white belly has inspired many people to report that they saw a whale. Manta rays normally reach our survey area in late March or early April, after right whales have migrated north, and when ocean temperatures have warmed. The Air Cam documented the rays from Ormond Beach to Flagler Beach, something to keep in mind as you are surveying!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Teased by a Humpback

The phone is ringing! But, not for right whales. Since Saturday, we have had a humpback whale in the area from the St. Augustine Beach Pier south to Ormond Beach and back again to North Flagler Beach.

The whale is showing familiar humpback behavior: moving quickly, surfacing briefly, and showing little else. On Saturday, 21 January, just after noon at the St. Augustine Beach Pier, Team 1 made the initial sighting. They alerted their team leader, Diane, who verified it as a humpback from the small dorsal fin. Jim responded with the big camera, meeting Team 1’s Andris Duffy at Butler Beach. Together, they followed the whale south to Crescent Beach (photo above), but it moved too quickly and erratically to obtain photos. Their sighting form (excerpt below) allows us to make three notes: 1) the in the absence of photos, the reason for the species ID is recorded, 2) behavior is recorded, and 3) a drawing has been included showing the distinctive scraped and scarred dorsal fin. So, when your opportunity comes, these additions to the Notes section of the sighting sheet are valuable.

On other news: Joy and Jim were interviewed for the Palm Coast Observer, so check out the paper on Thursday.
Lastly, when things are going well, your help is valuable. When things are not going as well (as in no right whale sightings yet), your help is even more valuable.

And as always, here are wishes for “Light Winds and Heavy Whales.” Keep your flippers crossed!