Saturday, January 23, 2010

Right whales' migration past Florida's Atlantic beaches enables researchers to record endangered whales' calls

Ludmilla Lelis | Orlando Sentinel | January 22, 2010

"When the world's most endangered whales migrate to the Florida coast each winter, researchers fly over the ocean and scan from the shoreline to find them.

This year, they not only can see the right whales, but can hear them too.

An acoustic buoy has been set up off the Jacksonville coast, broadcasting the call of the right whales 24/7 since December.

Whale calls were heard well before research teams spotted the creatures regularly, offering yet another means to track them, said Barb Zoodsma, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We can get the acoustic hits even before we had visual detection," said Zoodsma, coordinator of the right whale recovery program in the Southeast. "It's good information that verifies what we know — that right whales are in the area."

The North Atlantic right whales head to the coast of southern Georgia and northern Florida in the winter to birth their calves. Nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s, right whales today number less than 400. They remain at risk because of deaths from ship strikes and fishing-line entanglement.

Their annual migration triggers a major effort to track them, with research teams surveying the ocean from Savannah, Ga., to St. Augustine to find them. Along the Flagler, Volusia and Brevard coasts, volunteer teams also watch for the whales, which are known to swim close to shore.

Last year, the teams spotted 39 right whale calves, a record for the number of calves seen in a season. This winter, there have been at least seven calves with their mothers and another 40 whales that have also returned to the vicinity.

Each whale sighting offers vital information that is sent to the surrounding vessels to avoid collisions. But bad weather often grounds the flight crews.

From the buoy bobbing off Jacksonville, and another buoy off Savannah, the scientists can still confirm a whale is within a few miles, said Christopher Clark, who heads the bioacoustic research program at Cornell University.

The buoys, anchored in 45-foot-deep water, can routinely detect sounds up to five miles around, though the noise of passing vessels makes it hard to hear. The project receives federal funding from NOAA.

Similar buoys are already stationed off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., where the right whales feed during the summer. The buoys are lined up along a 55-mile stretch of the main shipping channel so as to provide regular audio warnings about the whales.

Right whales make an array of different vocalizations but the "up-call" is a two-second that sounds like a deep, rising "whoop."

It's not the melodious, lengthy whale songs that humpback whales vocalize during the mating season, but Clark said, "It's their basic call that helps to keep the herd coherent."

A computer on the detection buoy filters out the up-calls against shipping noise and other sounds and broadcasts the sounds via satellite to the Cornell lab. Once the sound is confirmed to be a right whale call, that information is sent to the right whale research teams and to mariners.

More buoys can help the conservation efforts, Zoodsma said. The audio hits would be particularly helpful in November and in the spring, when there aren't survey flights, and in areas that aren't covered by the surveys.

What the call means, and which whale said it, is unknown. "Whales of all ages can make this kind of sound and I'm convinced that they can tell each other apart," Clark said. "It would be fantastic if we could make out whether the call is by a male or female, young, old or a calf."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Whale watchers volunteer to do the 'right' thing

By LYNN KAISER CONRAD | East Volusia News | January 14, 2010

"You don't have to travel to an exotic place to see whales frolic in the ocean.

The Marineland Right Whale Survey Project is looking for local volunteers to help with the annual count of a highly endangered species -- the North Atlantic right whale.

It's estimated there are fewer than 400 right whales in the world, which is why the annual count is so critical. Volunteers from St. Augustine to Ponce Inlet are assigned geographic territories and segments of time for whale watching off the Atlantic coast.

About 135 potential volunteers attended an orientation meeting Jan. 3 and two-thirds of them are returning volunteers. This year volunteers will conduct the count through March 14. Volunteers are grouped in teams, or pods, and each team is given a clipboard, a supply of forms, binoculars and other items, which are helpful in recording observations.

Scientist Joy Hampp, project coordinator, says all of the team leaders received new team members after the recent orientation meeting.

"I met Dr. Jim Hain, the founder and creator of the Marineland Right Whale Project, in December 2000 as he was getting the first year under way," Hampp said. "He was looking for someone to organize the volunteer component, along with having a marine science background. I had been working around dolphins as an educator, administrator and research assistant since 1985, so I fit the bill."

Hampp, who is studying for her commercial pilot's license, says that aerial tracking supports shore observation. She flies an AirCam, a slow-flight aircraft with excellent observational and photographic capabilities.

She said right whales each have distinctive individual white raised patches, called callosities, on their backs. Photographing the whales from above allows for more precise identification, which helps the survey in data collection.

"I feel that I am contributing to the conservation of an endangered species through collecting critical data that otherwise would not be available to decision-makers and through raising awareness among people who live, work and play here," Hampp said.

The role of the volunteer is manifold. In addition to recording sightings, locations, numbers of adult whales and calves, the volunteers also act as stewards to educate the public.

The Right Whale Survey Project is looking for volunteers who can donate about four hours a week for the 10-week survey period. The project coordinates designated lookout points and times during the day. Individuals who live in condominiums with an ocean view make ideal volunteers, as they can observe without leaving the comforts of their home or balcony.

Additional volunteers are needed to help with administrative work, such as Web site maintenance, phone work and filing."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New year brings good news for Provincetown whale rescuers

Note: the whale referred to as "Mazynne" should be spelled Mavynne with a "v" and she is also known as EGNO 1151

By Kaimi Rose Lum | Provincetown Banner | Jan 13, 2010

"The new year has begun on a positive note for researchers at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, who have learned that a young right whale feared dead may actually be alive.

The yearling is the calf of the right whale known as “Mazynne,” who was disentangled by the PCCS whale rescue team up on Jeffery’s Ledge off Gloucester on Sept. 4. Although the team was thrilled to save Mazynne from the deadly entrapment in fishing gear, they were unhappy to learn shortly after the rescue that Mazynne was a mother whose calf should have been with her at the time.

“We feared the worst,” said Scott Landry, director of the PCCS whale disentanglement program. Often, he explained, mothers and baby whales become entangled together. Although Mazynne appeared to be alone at the time of the rescue, the whale responders couldn’t help wondering if her calf had been trapped underneath her and lost when the final cut was made that freed the mother from the entangling rope.

“There was no knowing what was in that gear,” Landry said. “Our big nightmare for the last few months is that while we disentangled the mother, we lost the calf.”

They hoped to prove otherwise. In September a bulletin was put out to the right whale research community alerting scientists to be on the watch for the calf.

Just last week, good news arrived. On Dec. 26, researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that they had sighted a yearling whale off the coast of Florida that matched descriptions of Mazynne’s calf. Whale experts at the New England Aquarium were called in to take a closer look, and, comparing the photos of the calf already in their right whale database with aerial photos taken more recently, they have now tentatively confirmed that it is the whale they were looking for.

“Matching between the calf stage and juvenile stage [when a whale has been weaned from its mother] is notoriously difficult,” Landry said. “In this case it is a good match, but on-water photos will be necessary to cinch the match.”

Landry called the news “a bright spot” in the world of right whale work, and as he looks back on 2009 he is taking stock of other successes.

“All told, we disentangled two right whales, four humpbacks and nine leatherback turtles [in 2009],” he said.

All three are endangered species, and right whales are listed as critically endangered. Only 450, approximately, remain in the world."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Despite cold, right whales still flocking to First Coast

By MARCIA LANE | The St. Augustine Record | January 5, 2010

"A week of cold weather isn't discouraging the annual North Atlantic right whale migration to Florida; in fact, the mammals couldn't be happier.

"They have lots of blubber ... and they like the colder water," said Katie Jackson with the North Atlantic Right Whale Project, a part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Our plane was up today, and sightings were reported in Georgia and Florida," Jackson said.

The right whales are on the endangered species list despite more than 50 years of protection. North Atlantic right whales are the rarest of the right whales, with only several hundred estimated in existence.

So far this year the Right Whale Project has recorded six mother/calf pairs and about 40 other right whales, including a number of juveniles, in the area since they began showing up in December.

That's about 10 percent of the estimated 400 to 450 North Atlantic right whale population that still exists, Jackson said.

This is part of the annual migration of the whales from Canada and New England waters down the coast to Florida and Georgia. For several months, the area will turn into a sort of giant nursery for the large mammals.

"Last year was a record year with 39 calves. Nobody's expecting that again," Jackson said.

These calves weigh in at about one ton and are 13-20 feet at birth. They'll be weaned by their mothers at about eight months and will nearly double in size their first year.

It's the distinctive callosities (roughened patches of skin) on their heads that are used to identify the individual whales.

Jackson said even though the whales come south for the calving season they like to stay in the cooler parts of the water. In Florida the Gulf Stream has a little wedge of cooler water that brings the whales nearer the shore.

"That's why we have the potential for land sightings. In Georgia, those are far rarer. Here, (the whales) come within a few 100 yards of shore," Jackson said.

Researchers with the Right Whale Project go up about 60 times during the calving season for six-hour session to locate and record the right whales. Windy weather in December cut down on the number of flights usually made.

Location of the whales is passed along to mariners to help keep them out of the areas. Collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing gear are two leading causes for whale deaths.

North Atlantic Right Whale Facts

* Right whale calving season is from December to March.

* Adult whales grow up to 59 feet and weigh up to 100 tons.

* Females reach sexual maturity at 6 to 12 years of age.

* Females breed every three to five years.

* Whales feed on zooplankton and other tiny organisms.

* Whales are classified as endangered, as whaling nearly wiped out the species.

About Individual Whales

The New England Aquarium maintains a database on the right whales including family trees. An online version is available at

Protecting Whales

* Slow down your vessels.

* Do not attempt to approach the whale.

* Record latitude and longitude, LORAN coordinates or position in regard to buoys.

* Slowly move away from the whale to a distance of 500 yards or more.

* Report the sighting to FWC's Wildlife Alert toll-free number, (888) 404-FWCC. Cellular phone customers should dial *FWC or #FWC.

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission"

Monday, January 04, 2010

Endangered right whales and calves spotted

Annual migration past St. Simons Island reinforces the need to protect the species from motor boats, other threats.

By Katy Rank Lev | Mother Nature Network | Mon, Jan 04 2010

"It's whale-watching season in Georgia. According to the Savannah Morning News, the elusive and endangered right whale has begun its annual migration past St. Simons Island. The 70-ton whales calve in the southern waters between November and April and researchers have spotted five right whale mother/calf pairs so far this year.

Surveyors from the St. Simons Wildlife Trust monitor the whales' fertility and have been doing so since 1984. Lead researcher Tricia Naessig points to the fragility of the species: only a few hundred survived mass whaling threats. Now, the mammals are in danger of fishing gear and boat parts. According to the Morning News, the researchers recently "spotted a 3-year-old male off Wolf Island with a left flank and back marred by propeller scars." Naessig said the animal's new wounds reinforce the importance of boats maintaining a slow speed when the right whales are calving.

While the region has rules in place to protect the fertile whales, it's often hard to enforce the water speeds. Naessig estimates that it takes four calves to replace one adult female right whale, so protecting these birthing mothers is of utmost importance. Her team hopes that ocean weather conditions will be milder in 2010, allowing the wildlife trust to monitor the whales more closely."

Friday, January 01, 2010

Extraordinary sight on new year: Endangered right whale spotted off Juno Beach

By Susan Spencer-Wendel and Willie Howard | The Palm Beach Post | Jan. 1, 2010

"JUNO BEACH — The new year started with an extraordinary sight for fisherman Bob Heil.

Heil, 75, was fishing of the Juno Beach pier about 7:30 a.m. following a magnificent sunrise. The ocean was flat and calm, and there lolling about maybe a 100 yards out from the pier's end was a whale.

Rolling and playing; an alternating fin, head, tail, appearing on the horizon.

And not just any whale. The most endangered of all the world's great whales, the right whale, wildlife officials later confirmed.

There are only 350 right whales left in the North Atlantic, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's Web site (

"It was such a good omen for 2010," said Heil, of Loxahatchee Groves.

Julie Albert of Marine Resources Council, a non-profit environmental group out of Palm Bay which tracks the whales, said a crew member of a barge at sea sent photos of the whale to wildlife officials who confirmed it was a right whale.

While it's common to see them in close to the beach, not many right whales migrate as far south as Juno Beach, she said.

According to the consortium's Web site, the right whale usually gives birth during winter months off the coast of central and north Florida and southern Georgia.

The whales have been internationally protected since 1935, Albert said, and it is illegal for a boat to be within 500 yards of the endangered animal.

Albert asks that anyone sighting or photographing a right whale call their whale reporting hotline at 888-979-4253 (888-97-WHALE).

Right whales have distinctive features which identify them, she said. They have no dorsal fin and have hardened patches of skin on their heads which is not seen on other whales around here.

Right whales also have short, stubby black flippers, and their tail is black on both sides.

A sight for sore eyes any day of the year — but definitely the "right" way to start a new one."

Right whales visiting the Treasure Coast

TCPalm | | January 1, 2010

A whale of a sight is on it’s way to the waters off the Treasure Coast.

"The first right whales of the season were seen off St. Augustine last week as the endangered species of 60-foot, 100-ton marine mammals make their annual migration from summer feeding grounds off Canada to their winter homes in the Caribbean Sea.

“People should start seeing right whales and humpback whales here (along the Treasure Coast) in January and February,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart.

Most of the whales will be several miles offshore, Perry said, “so we usually get just four or five sightings a year — sometimes more, sometimes none at all. But sometimes you’ll see them within a couple of hundred feet off shore.”

Perry said to look for calves alongside the mother whales, a sign that the 400 or so right whales remaining could be adding to their population.

Hunters sought out right whales for their rich oil content, dubbing them the “right” whales to hunt. The whales swim slowly and close to shore; and early Native Americans on the Treasure Coast reportedly hunted them by jumping on their backs and driving plugs into the mammals’ blow holes.

Now protected as a endangered species, the whale’s biggest threats today include collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear. Federal law requires people keep at least 500 yards from the whales.

Five environmental groups filed a petition in September asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to expand areas deemed critical habitat for the whales, which now extends from Maine to Sebastian.

Designating more critical habitat would force projects to minimize effects on the whale during port expansions, dredging, sonar activity, offshore alternative energy and other activities within its habitat, Vicki Cornish, director of marine wildlife policy for the Ocean Conservancy, told Florida Today.

“It’s basically habitat that’s essential for the recovery and survival of an endangered or threatened species,” Cornish said. “It’s not going to impact anything that’s done by individuals.”

The Treasure Coast “probably isn’t part of the critical habitat because we don’t have as many sightings as the other areas,” Perry said. “If more people called in sightings, maybe the habitat designation could be expanded down here.”

Thar she blows!

• Report whale sightings immediately to the Stuart-based Florida Oceanograhic Society by calling (772) 225-0505.

• “Tell us when and where you saw it,” said Mark Perry, the society’s executive director, “and we can either grab some binoculars or call lifeguards to get a positive identification.”

Jim Waymer of Florida Today contributed to this report."