Sunday, April 25, 2010

{Press} Why did the right whale cross the sea?

The Daytona Beach News Journal | by Dinah Voyles Pulver | April 25, 2010

"Scientists wondered for years why endangered North Atlantic right whales travel south to coastal Florida and Georgia each winter.

This year they may be closer to an answer. Like people that spend winters in Florida, the whales may just prefer warmer temperatures.

Scientists know adult female whales swim south from the Bay of Fundy near Nova Scotia to give birth, accompanied by an entourage of juvenile and young adult whales and the occasional adult male.

But no one is sure why the whales choose this particular location, though experts long suspected temperature played a role.

This winter, as ocean temperatures plummeted in January, the whales moved farther and farther south from the typical center of their activity off Jacksonville. More whales were spotted off the Volusia and Flagler coasts than ever before and whales were seen as far south as Boynton Beach.

The season, which officially ended April 15, was "interesting and successful," said Tom Pitchford, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. Experts were relieved no whales were found stranded on the beach or entangled in ropes or fishing gear and no collisions were reported between whales and ships.

One team of aerial observers also witnessed a birth, an event seen only once before in the history of the monitoring program. A total of 19 mother and calf pairs were seen, but one calf later died.

Experts identify the whales by patches of white skin on their heads called callosities. A species of baleen whale, right whales reach up to 55 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons.

The unseasonable cold gave scientists a valuable opportunity to compare water temperatures and sightings to historical records.

"We saw in a big way how the colder the water, the farther south the whales might disperse," Pitchford said. Further analysis will continue, he said, but an "armchair look at the data" clearly shows a shift in distribution.

That means fewer whales might be seen locally in a warmer winter, while colder winters might result in a bevy of whale sightings like the one that drew hundreds of people to Flagler Beach on Jan. 29. A large group of whales spent the day cavorting just off shore.

"That was a highlight of the season," said Jim Hain, a scientist with the Marineland Right Whale Project. An event like that is "kind of spectacular."

Sometimes groups of young whales are the equivalent of teenagers at the mall, Hain said. "You'll have this big social group of up to 10, 11 or 12 animals," he said. "There's a lot of interaction, bumping and all that."

Such sightings help educate people and promote whale conservation, Hain said.

"Once people see whales, they're hooked.

"You can give them textbooks, videos and all that, but the connection and the impact comes when they're actually standing on a beach and they see a whale just outside the surf line," Hain said. "It's like the veil is lifted from their eyes and their heart."

The Marineland project monitors about 60 miles of coast from just above St. Augustine to New Smyrna Beach, an area where the ocean is slightly deeper near shore, which allows the whales to swim closer. Hain and Joy Hampp use a two-seater aircraft and typically fly about three times a week during a 10-week period.

This year the project saw its best year ever for whale sightings, a fact Hain attributes to the cold. Eight different mother-calf pairs were sighted.

Marineland is one of six groups that monitor the coast between South Carolina and Florida during the calving season, and one of four conducting regular aerial surveys. The aerial observers participate in an early warning system that alerts large commercial vessels and U.S. military ships to the presence of whales in the busy shipping lanes off the Northeast Florida coast."

No comments: