Thursday, December 08, 2011

{Press} font increase font decrease Print Story Font Size Watch network preparing for right whale winter migration

The Daytona Beach News Journal | Dinah Voyles Pulver | December 3, 2011

"Female right whale No. 1301, also known as "Half-Note," was the first right whale spotted in the deep Southeast during the 2011-2012 calving season. (Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA)

Anticipation is keeping right whale lovers waitin' and waitin' for the endangered whales to arrive along Florida's northeast coast for this year's calving season.

"The anticipation of those first whales coming in, and getting ready for the season is like wow!" says Joy Hampp, project coordinator for the Marineland Right Whale Project. "It's really neat. We're all excited."

Mother whales and their entourage of young juveniles and scattered males usually begin arriving off the Flagler and Volusia coasts in mid- to late December, after traveling south from the Bay of Fundy between Maine and Nova Scotia.

A host of preparations takes place before the whales arrive. The Marine Resources Council, based in Brevard County, and the Marineland Right Whale Project in north Flagler plan and begin conducting classes to train spotters to help track whale sightings. The first of those classes locally takes place today.

Reminders also go up along the coast, such as the prerecorded message that began playing on the phone systems of the regional National Weather Service offices this week, to urge boaters to use caution.

Aerial survey teams and the spotter network, which includes more than 800 volunteers along the Florida coast, help collect crucial information about the whales and provide information used to warn large ships when whales are in the area. The whales can weigh up to 70 tons and reach a length of 55 feet. Newborns measure between 13 and 15 feet.

The aerial crew for the Marineland whale project is ready to start flying any day, Hampp said this week. "Once we start getting reports from aerial survey teams to the north, we'll start flying consistently."

The only whale seen in the southeast so far this year is a female known as "Half-Note," who was photographed swimming offshore of South Carolina in late November. Observers noted her large size indicated she is probably pregnant. The whale, numbered 1301, was "swimming slowly and looking pretty big," wrote Dianna Schulte with Sea to Shore Alliance, one of the groups that participates in right whale monitoring.

A 29-year-old female, Half-Note has given birth at least four times, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Called the right whale because they were the "right whale" for early whale hunters, the whale has been protected at least in part for more than 75 years. However, experts say the population, estimated at less than 450, is precariously low.

Boat collisions are considered the leading cause of death among right whales, with entanglements in fishing gear also proving deadly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked over several years to increase protections for the whales to prevent boat strikes and now maintains a system that works with the sighting networks and other organizations to alert commercial and military mariners when whales are present in an area.

Even for volunteers who have worked with the monitoring programs for years, the thrill of seeing one of the large whales offshore never gets old, Hampp said.

"It's funny," she said. "This will be our 12th season and I've talked to volunteers that have been with us the entire time and with veteran researchers that have been doing this for 20 years, and it's still the same anticipation."

Anyone who sees a whale offshore is asked to call the Marine Resources Council's right whale hotline at: 888-979-4253For more information about the Marineland Right Whale Project, call 904-669-8615.

How do you identify a right whale?

Rough, white patches of skin on the head called callosities

Short, stubby, black flippers on the sides of the body

Triangular, black tail with smooth edges and a deep notch in the middle

No dorsal (back) fin

V-shaped blow of water when they exhale

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