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."

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