Friday, January 01, 2010

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."

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