Friday, December 04, 2009

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."

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