Friday, December 18, 2009

First migrating right whale spotted off Fla. coast

The Associated Press | | December 18, 2009

"ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Florida whale watchers have spotted the first migrating North Atlantic right whale of the 2009-2010 season off beaches near St. Augustine.

Katie Jackson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission says the whale appears to be a young calf, about a year or two old.

Researchers say the whales head south from Novia Scotia and the Gulf of Maine from November to April to give birth and nurse their young. There were 71 sightings of the whales off Florida waters last season. Endangered right whales have an average life span of 50 years and adults range from an average of 45 to 55 feet in length."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009 Right Whale Population Estimate = 438

Right Whale News 17(4): 3-4

"At the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting, 17-18 November 2009, New Bedford, Massachusetts, the tradition of presenting the “North Atlantic right whale report card” was continued. In past years, the information on population status, reproduction, mortalities, entanglements, vessel strikes, and survey efforts was largely informal and for the information of Consortium members. However, based on the desire and the need to more widely provide the best available information, the report for the period 1 November 2007 to 30 April 2009 was presented to the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee as Paper # SC/61/BRG11, and subsequently posted on the Consortium’s website ( under the Resources tab and then the Publications tab. Additionally, the 2009 Annual Report Card Addendum for the period 1 May through 31 October 2009 is posted on the website.The report card and the addendum provide current and comprehensive information on the consortium, research activities, and the essential population parameters. Among the information presented is that in 2008, the best estimate of catalogued North Atlantic right whales was 438 individuals."

Friday, December 04, 2009

NOAA Twin Otter Aircraft

Photo credit: NOAA

Isn't this just a fabulous photo of the NOAA Twin Otter?!

Celebration of right whales Saturday in Jacksonville Beach

Groups want to show region's importance to the marine animals.

By Steve Patterson | Florida Times-Union | December 4, 2009

"Although right whales have wintered off Florida and Georgia as long as anyone can remember, this weekend will be the first time they’ve had a welcoming party.

Researchers and activists have organized the Right Whale Festival, scheduled Saturday in Jacksonville Beach, to showcase the area’s importance to the survival of the endangered mammals.

“The fact that these whales are off our coast and depend on our coast is just incredible. I think it’s an honor and it’s a responsibility for us to meet that challenge,” said Barb Zoodsma, a biologist in Fernandina Beach who coordinates surveys of the whales for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Zoodsma said she’s wanted to hold a festival for a few years but needed to find the right people to take charge. The nonprofit Ocean Conservancy helped organize the event at the Seawalk Pavilion with backing from sponsors as varied as McDonald’s and the Jacksonville Port Authority.

“It’s a great opportunity to let Jacksonville residents know that they have this incredible whale that lives right offshore,” said Vicki Cornish, the Conservancy’s vice president for marine wildlife conservation. The whales can be seen from beaches during part of the winter, she said.

There are only about 400 right whales left in the northern Atlantic Ocean, a tiny fragment of the population whalers hunted almost to extinction long ago. The animals have been protected from commercial hunting since the 1930s, but collisions with ships and entanglement in heavy fishing lines still kill or injure whales.

That has led to protective measures such as seasonal speed limits for commercial shipping in Jacksonville and other port areas near the whales’ habitat.

The Florida and Georgia coasts are calving grounds for the animals, the places where babies are born and nurtured before heading to the New England and Canadian coasts during warm weather.

Researchers spotted 39 pairs of mothers and newborns offshore last winter, a record figure.

The whale migration season began last month and will continue into April.

None of the animals have been seen surfacing yet, but Zoodsma said a buoy equipped to listen for whale calls has picked up some within a few miles of the mouth of the St. Johns River.

Organizers have tried to give the festival broad appeal by scheduling a beach cleanup, auction, music and beach run. The main festival runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Groups and government agencies involved in whale issues will staff booths to tell people about the animals.

Organizations such as the Marineland Right Whale Project, which recruits people to watch from shore for the animals, have also rounded up volunteers to set up the weekend events."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Whale watchers

Team takes to skies to track, protect endangered species

By Allyson Bird | The Post and Courier | December 2, 2009

"From now until spring, a colorful crew will cram into a twin-engine airplane every clear day to draw lines in the sky off the coast of Charleston, searching for whales in the waters below.

With only 400 or so North Atlantic right whales in existence, aerial survey team members from the New York-based conservation group Wildlife Trust make it their business to track them and to direct ships away from the endangered species. Two contractor pilots with North Carolina-based Orion Aviation and funding from the State Ports Authority help make it possible.

One of those pilots, the bandanna- and straw-hat-wearing Rocky Walker, describes the team's work like this: "Their heads are turned 90 degrees to the direction of flight about 99.5 percent of the time with their noses against the window. When they spot a critter they yell, 'Break left!' or 'Break right!' " Then one of them points a long-lens camera out of a tiny porthole in the blue-and-white Cessna C337 Skymaster. The other collects data, such as the animal's coordinates, as the plane circles from a mere 1,000 feet above.

"I just turned down a captain's job in a jet to do this because this is big, big fun," said Walker, a part-time musician originally from Dallas.

Melanie White from upstate New York -- or "nowhere near the ocean," as she put it -- remembered one particular sighting while working with Wildlife Trust on her first stint in South Carolina last year. An elusive whale, identified only as 2480, popped into view after being spotted only a handful of previous times.

And just how do the team members know which whale is which?

They photograph the mammals' heads, patterned with white, rough patches of skin where lice live and create identifying marks easy to read from the sky. So when the Wildlife Trust observers return each year, they usually see some familiar dermatology.

When they found their first whale of the year Saturday, they recognized her as Dragon, whom they first spotted as a young mother a couple of years ago and later presumed her missing calf dead.

Asked why the whale abandoned her young, the crew looked around at each other before team leader Dianna Schulte summed it up: "Bad parenting."

Last year the team spotted 95 whales, a huge increase over the 61 from the previous six-month tour. The program began in 2004, operating primarily off money from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The State Ports Authority, as part of its "Pledge for Growth" associated with its new container terminal under construction at the former Charleston Naval Base, agreed to fund $200,000 annually for five years. That money provides enough cash to cover the flights, which run from Cape Romain to Fripp Island and 30 miles out over the ocean.

The team members, who all work whale-watching boats in New England in the summers, rotate between the three jobs: photography, data collection and pulling it all together on the ground. They fly on any good-weather day, which included Thanksgiving this year.

As White put it, "The whales, they don't know what holidays are."

The three Wildlife Trust watchers have a rental home on Isle of Palms, their headquarters from mid-November to mid-April. Walker and Stephanie Funston, the California copilot he calls "Malibu Barbie," rent places near the same area to keep everyone close to the launch point at Mount Pleasant Regional Airport.

Funston said sometimes the team spots six whales in a single day and sometimes it goes for days without a sighting, using XM radio and jokes to fill the hours between the dawn-to-dusk operation.

And on days when weather conditions aren't right for flying, Walker said, "We wish they were right, because Moby's out there alone."