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 www.neaq.org

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"

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