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."

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