2014 Florida Volunteer Updates

As the North Atlantic right whales migrate to the South Georgia/Northern Florida coast each winter volunteers help watch for and capture critical details related to this endangered species. This information helps scientists track the fate of the species and acts as a first alert system to pilots in the shipping lanes to avoid accidental killings. This blog shares the findings, photos and other pertinent information gathered from the Palm Coast Sector Volunteer Team while helping to connect and communicate the many ways we can protect the right whales and sustain our wonderful ocean life.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Once In A Blue Moon Kind of Weekend

The weekend started on Friday when, as the "Blue Moon" was rising before dark over the ocean here in Florida, I witnessed a spectacular display of dolphins that will stay with me the rest of my life. After seeing what at first seemed like a small whale breech the surface I grabbed my binox and noted a large school of large fish were near the surface as dolphins were jumping up and over each other. I was simply mesmerized. It was as if they, too, were celebrating the moon's second appearance of the month as well as feeding on such a fine meal. And I thought of my mother who recently passed and how it was I came to love the sea.

On Nauset Beach, in East Orleans on Cape Cod another kind of meal was actually being avoided. Nauset is a beautiful strip of land that meets the Atlantic Ocean with a salty on-shore breeze, loud rolling surf, strong tides, moderate sized dunes topped with tall beach grass bending in the breezes and a deep, white sandy beach. This is the same beach where I first met the ocean and enjoyed then being beaten up by her waves for hours upon hours, never minding that the water temperature hovered between 65 and 70 degrees. Not so today as it makes my ankles turn blue if not actually purple just to stand in it for a few minutes. And on this Labor Day weekend, typically the busiest of the summer,  Nauset Beach goers are only allowed to go in up to their ankles "due to the presence of marine life in the water." Yep. Sharks. But not just any sharks. Great Whites. Thursday the spotters in the air and on the water located the first one and then on Friday several were seen multiple times "lingering" off of Nauset. No one is complaining of course. Except maybe the owners of the snack shack. As Great Whites have amazingly sharp sense of smell and will travel miles following their favorite food. Which in this case are the seals that are now protected and living on Monomoy Island, just a few miles south of Nauset. And while sharks don't "typically" consider humans a food source, the Great Whites do not discriminate. 

Then on Saturday, the sun rose over the beach in Fort Pierce, FL, a beach soon packed with people struggling with their inability to save 22 beached pilot whales who were discovered floundering there. We don't typically see pilot whales off shore as they swim in much deeper waters and only come close to shore when they are sick or to die. And the sad part is that when one whale is sick and leaves the pod the rest of the pod typically follows because, as social creatures, it is their instinct never to leave a whale behind. A very sad situation as most of the whales died or had to be euthanized Saturday, but 5 of the whales were able to be rescued and taken to the Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Institute in Fort Pierce. So far they are hanging in there. Exhausted, but slowly recovering. And one of the whales is under the age of 2 and still nursing, however her mother did not survive so the experts at Harbor Branch are now substitution moms and bottle feeding the whale. In a few days, when the five are up to the two hour trip North, they will be transported to their new home at SeaWorld in Orlando, FL where they will be looked after until they are strong enough to be released back into the ocean.  

What an abundant sea life we have around us and seeing how our paths often cross I am assured one is always looking out for the other. Let's hope for a more relaxing Labor Day both in and out of the water and please remember to thank the many people that work hard to protect our oceans and our friends in them. 

P.S. Yes, that is me as a young girl in the photo above on vacation at Nauset Beach as two of my three older brothers wait to catch the next wave. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two Humpbacks Saved Off Cape Cod in Two Days

This just in from Cape Cod...The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies added two more whales to the more than 90 that have been saved by their entanglement release team since it was established in 1984.  

The latest successful entanglement release occurred yesterday off Chatham on Cape Cod. Typically tilled with rough seas, the narrow inlet and tricky tidal currents surrounding Chatham bars is tough to maneuver for even the most experienced, but it was especially rough for a humpback whale that was found entangled by a line wrapped around its mouth and attached to heavy gear on the sea floor.

But a team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Disentanglement Team as well as local fishermen, the U.S. Coastguard and a few recreational boaters, jumped into action and was able to release the whale by using a grappling hook and a thirty foot pole with a knife attached to cut and release the whale. This was the second entanglement release off of Cape Cod in the last two days.

This is great news for the whales and the Cape Cod team. As you know, Cape Cod has a rich history of whaling yet is is now creating a new history focused on education, research and helping to rescue the very whales that were once its lively hood. In fact, it was the staff of The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies that first developed the technique used today to disentangle whales, a process based on an old whaling process called kegging whereby they use large floats called kegs (similar to the ones used in JAWS) to keep the whale buoyant and relatively stable creating a safer environment to detangle the whales.

This historic technique and connection reached its way down to Florida in 1996 when The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was called upon to help rescue a northern right whale entangled off the coast of Florida. This highlighted the need to expand the rescue program to include the entire east coast which helped to establish The Marine Resources Council Right Whale Monitoring Program here in Florida. Then in 2001 another Cape Cod based organization became involved when the Associated Scientists at Woods Hole founded the Marineland Right Whale Project and our citizen volunteer program was born. 

And while on paper it may be a bit confusing to see, especially when out there alone on watch during many a cold wintry morning, we are part of a vast team of vigilant volunteers, scientists, educators, fishermen and citizens dotting America's coastline all with one common goal - to help protect and save these remaining whales.  A team with a connection that runs far beyond a grappling hooks reach and keeps us all on watch and at the ready. 

For more information & related Links:
Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies
The Pegasus Foundation
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Services
Marine Resources Council RW Monitoring Program
Marineland Right Whale Project
Associated Scientists at Woods Hole
Georgia Aquarium

Photo: Chatham fishing boat, Chatham inlet, copyright Christine Sullivan

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Another Pygmy Sperm Whale Beaches Nearby

While I have been a volunteer for the Marineland Right Whale Project for just the past few years, they were years of abundant sightings of both the right whale and the humpback. This season was just the opposite, deafeningly quiet and cut short due, as it is assumed, to warmer water temperatures. But then, as the "right" season ended, two of us spotted what was likely a pygmy sperm whale in our waters. Then two pygmy sperm whales were found beached within weeks of each other just south of us. But we were wrong to think that was the end of it.

According to The St Augustine Record's website, a sperm whale was found beached yesterday evening in a tidal creek in St Augustine. While this raises more questions, it begs for even more answers. Why are they coming in so close to shore? Assuming it is because they are sick, what is causing it? Is there a specific illness spreading within the whale community? Is it tied to the lack of sightings of the right whales? Is it something in the water, something man is doing or is it just the natural order of things? All certainly good questions and while scientifically interesting it is still heart breaking to witness. Here's the article below and the link to the story at The St Augustine Record. Whale on!
Biologists try to save beached whale by Hospital Creek
Sick whale found in shallow water
June 2, 2012, 12:03 am
A team of biologists and marine mammal experts quickly assembled at the end of Ocean Avenue in St. Augustine on Friday evening after a kayaker spotted a small whale circling near Hospital Creek.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
workers try to carry the pygmy whale to
a truck on Friday evening. By Peter Guinta
Larry Kendrick of EcoTours, a company based at St. Augustine Marina, had been kayaking near the creek about 6 p.m. when he spotted the 11-foot to 12-foot pygmy sperm whale and called the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline. Hospital Creek is near Mission of Nombre de Dios, site of the large cross north of downtown St. Augustine. 

FWC Marine Mammal Biologist Nadia J. Gordon arrived, as did George Biedenbach, director of conservation programs for The Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station in Flagler County, Hillary Register of the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens Stranding Team and Zack McKenna of Eco- Tours.

Gordon said pygmy sperm whales were the second most common stranding mammal, behind bottlenose dolphins, and scientists think that most strandings are caused by cardiomyopathy, which is a heart condition.
Last year, there were four such strandings recorded from the Georgia state line to Flagler County.

“If you see a stranded whale, dolphin or manatee, whether it’s live, dead or tagged, call our hot- line at 888-404-FWCC,” Gordon said. “Don’t try pushing it out to sea again. They’re stranding for a reason. They’ll just wash up on shore somewhere else.”

The long black whale was obviously sick, as it didn’t thrash about when a dozen humans tried to slide it carefully into a rubberized sling. When the sling was moved, it flipped its powerful tail. None of the young crew, working in muddy, shallow water containing sharp oyster whells, were hit by the flip, but some of them came ashore with bloody feet from shell cuts. 
   Ashore, a steel cable was hooked to the sling and a winch lifted the patient into the Georgia Aquarium’s    truck.
This whale was a “kogia,” a genus name. They eat mostly squid and are usually found far offshore.
Gordon said it is difficult to immediately tell if this is a pygmy sperm whale or a dwarf sperm whale, To make it even more difficult to identify, there are also dwarf pygmy whales out there. This one would be sedated but eventually die, she said. After that, marine scientists would do a necropsy, which is an autopsy on animals. 
“The more we can learn about them, the more we can help the species,” Gordon said.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Waiting & Wading Through Warm Waters

Happy May Day fellow whale watchers!  Today I am sharing the below WashingtonPost.com article written by Peter Brannen. Peter lives on Martha's Vineyard and is a recent Ocean Science Journalism Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  As all continue to scratch the heads of science to determine why it was such a low producing and almost nil sightings season here in Florida, Peter succinctly wraps up the state of our right whales from Cape Cod's vantage point - which, similar to our winter, is disheartening - yet uncovers a few possible if not probable causes.  

Thank you to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies for posting a link to the article today on their Facebook page and yesterday posted, 

"Exclusive! Today the aerial survey team spotted ten minke whales, fifteen fin whales, and twenty humpback whales off the Outer Beach between Provincetown to Chatham."


BILL GREENE/BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES - A right whale sounds in Cape Cod Bay. Aerial

surveys have counted only six new calves this year, down from the average of 20.

Scientists worry that warming seas may be harming the endangered right whale

By Peter BrannenPublished: April 30

Normally for a few days in spring, beachgoers on this hook of land stretching into Cape Cod Bay witness one of the rarest scenes in the animal kingdom: dozens of surface-skimming North Atlantic right whales, lumbering just a few hundred yards from shore.
But that rite of spring was upended this year. The critically endangered animals, which usually arrive in late March or early April to graze on shrimplike plankton, began arriving before Christmas, as water temperatures hovered several degrees above normal, dispersing only recently.

“It’s a confluence of remarkable things. We’ve got extraordinarily rare animals, nearly extinct, acting very unusually,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale habitat studies program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
Before arriving early in Cape Cod waters, one of their main feeding grounds, right whales had a difficult winter off Florida and Georgia, where they gave birth to fewer calves.
Scientists are reluctant to draw a straight line between warmer water and changes in whale behavior, but some feel that they’re seeing more than coinciden-
ces. Water temperatures in and around Cape Cod Bay were more than 3.5 degrees above average this winter, although scientists say this is probably a short-term anomaly that can’t be directly attributed to climate change.
“To me or you 3.5 degrees isn’t a big difference, but in an ocean system it means different oceanography, different currents and different biological processes,” Mayo said. He suspects this could be driving changes in the distribution and timing of plankton blooms, in turn influencing the whales’ odd behavior.
With only about 400 of the animals in existence, North Atlantic right whales inevitably attract attention when they venture close to shore. The vast majority of them bear the scars of ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear, two leading causes of right whale mortality and a threat to the species’ survival.
Humans have long posed a threat to the docile, huge-headed animals, which were hunted to near extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries because of their slowness and buoyancy after being killed (thus making them the “right” whale to hunt for their oil and baleen). But there are indications that in the coming decades the whales will be affected by a changing planet.
“It was a terrible year for right whale calves,” says Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, a leader in right whale research.
Female right whales venture as far south as Florida to give birth, and the past decade has witnessed an encouraging uptick in calving numbers, with a yearly average of 20 and a high of 39 born in 2009. But this winter, aerial survey teams in Florida and Georgia have counted only six new calves, including one that likely died, apparently from malnutrition.
According to scientists, the disappointing numbers could be linked to changes in the animals’ northern feeding grounds brought on by water that is warmer but also less salty because of melting Arctic sea ice.

Female right whales have a gestation period that can last more than a year; for that reason, researchers are looking at a change in the food supply in Canada’s Bay of Fundy in the summer of 2010 as a possible culprit for this year’s low number of calves.
Right whales, which can weigh as much as 70 tons, consume 2,200 to 5,500 pounds of tiny crustaceans, or copepods, a day. Females do not get pregnant if they are underfed, and with good reason: They can lose up to 30,000 pounds on the journey from Canada to their southern calving grounds, and once a mother gives birth, she must feed nursing calves, which can put on several hundred pounds a day. Time spent feeding can be crucial in ensuring an animal’s reproductive success.

Along with Cape Cod Bay and a channel east of Nantucket Island, the Bay of Fundy — a part of the Gulf of Maine between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — is one of the right whale’s major feeding areas. It is also the preferred feeding ground for nursing and reproductively active females.
Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, was part of a team that studied the animals in the Bay of Fundy in the summer of 2010. “The few right whales that were there were [moving quickly and] diving and showing up a half-mile away, suggesting that they were looking [for] but weren’t finding food,” she said. The whales normally make long dives and come up in generally the same area.
Sperm whales were also observed swimming in the bay that summer, according to Knowlton, which was unusual. In more than 30 years of research in the bay, she said, sperm whales had been spotted only once, and for no longer than a day. In 2010, a large group was there for close to two months.
The strange summer in the Bay of Fundy in 2010 was accompanied by warmer water; researchers think that the right whale’s favorite plankton, a type of cope-
pod called Calanus, was not as plentiful, while the preferred prey of sperm whales, squid, flourished.
These observations track with data from the late 1990s, when current shifts in the Bay of Fundy resulted in a huge drop-off in copepods and, subsequently, some of the worst calving years for right whales on record.
“If we look over the last 30 years, if the water is warmer or fresher, then we see lower abundance of Calanus,” said Andrew Pershing, a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Maine. “We can expect in the future that the Gulf of Maine is going to get warmer and fresher.”
The right whales that Knowlton has seen this spring in Cape Cod Bay show signs of malnourishment.
“We saw a female looking extremely thin,” she said. “She’s a reproductive female who had a calf in 2010, and now she’s just not looking well. The animals aren’t looking as good as we might hope. Their condition and their nutritional fitness has declined.”
Strangely, while the whales were drawn to Cape Cod months earlier than usual this year, Calanus has been less abundant than in years past. But other plankton have thrived in the warmer conditions.
“We began to see an organism this winter called a pteropod that we had not seen before,” Mayo said. “We’ve seen them, but it’s one here, one there, out of a thousand [organisms per sample]. In February we were seeing them dominant in a couple of samples. Hundreds of them.”
He compared the right whales’ behavior this winter to the tourists who flock to the Cape’s seafood joints every summer. Imagine, he says, that one year all of them showed up in February, then failed to arrive as usual in July.
“The whales are just simply not doing what we expect them to do,” Mayo said. For a species as intensely monitored as right whales, much of their lives — such as where they go in the winter — remains poorly understood.
Recently Mayo led a group of scientists by boat to an area off Provincetown where fin whales and dolphins gathered to feast and where the right whales had been surface skimming in large numbers for weeks.
During the trip, Christy Hudak, one of Mayo’s colleagues at the Center for Coastal Studies, spotted a normally sedate whale hurling itself fully out of the water over and over again.
“They’ve been doing that a lot this year,” she said. “We don’t know why.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


4/28 UPDATE: After the sighting we learned that a sperm whale had been seen in the area prior to our sighting and that one beached at Cocoa Beach just days afterwards. Bob and I now believe the whale we spotted was likely this same sperm whale. Bob remembers the fluke as looking almost identical to the beached whale and my research of what I visually captured (smaller, white belly, stocky) lined up with a Minke - BOTH of which look similar and BOTH of which are very rare to see in our waters but now proven to be. What an unusual season in so many ways... 

3/22 UPDATE: The sighting has now been confirmed as a whale sighting thanks to the detailed report by Bob Bagdon of the Hammock Dunes sector who observed from his condo balcony a whale's fluke surfacing and splashing a few times on the morning of March 14th. Thanks, Bob, and great news. And even though it has not been identified as a right or a humpback it is still a wonderful thing to witness, life changing and enriching especially here in our own backyard and especially during an extremely quiet season. Until next time, whale on!

3/15 UPDATE: The whale sighting has still not been confirmed - either as a humpback or right. So please keep an eye out on the waters of our area. And note that there is a slight possibility of it being a large, black and white Manta Ray....but the flippers I saw were larger, as was the body and the white foam strip it left behind was long...so I'm sticking to whale.

My dune walkover is closed for repair so I took my dog for her walk on the beach via a neighboring walkover (Portofina/Savona for you locals) and as soon as my feet hit the bottom step and sloughed off my sandals I looked out over the oceans expanse and noticed an unusually long, white foamy strip on the surface, farther out than any waves were breaking.  And since my husband and I saw something large and black breach the surface and fall back into the ocean just last week, certain it was a whale, I stopped in my tracks and stared - willing, waiting, wanting, hoping and then..

A WHALE shot up and out from under the white foam and spun and fell back onto its back. WOW! IT'S A WHALE!?!?  Then it happened again!! I instinctively reached for my camera (which I always carry), then my phone (which I always carry) then, realizing I had neither, I centered into whale watch mode and, while waiting for another breach, took note of the surrounding conditions and mentally tried to hold onto the details of what I saw.

Time stamp: Wednesday, March 14, 11:40AM. There were several large, white birds diving into the water creating the infamous v-shape splash as well as a few large pelicans (I believe, no binoculars). Details of the whale: It was compact and stocky in appearance, its skin looked smooth and shiny, it had a black back with a large, white belly and short flippers that could have been black and white or all black. So was it a right or a humpback? Was it a calf? It was funny. The image reminded me of the whales you see in movies, like a Shamu - an orca (looked like the photo above). But hey, they don't travel our waters do they? Plus, I couldn't confirm if there was a dorsal fin as it breached at an angle and fell on its back. And now the whale was nowhere to be found. And I continued my walk. Turning every so often and hoping to witness just one more time the small miracle. 

When I returned to my condo and called our local reporting number I learned that another whale watcher had seen and spotted the same whale and called it in. And that they were sure it was a humpback, or at least that it wasn't a right whale. Now I have seen humpbacks breach almost their entire body straight up in the air before crashing back. This whale was more round, came out sideways with only a third of its body and was shiny and smooth. So I watched the video I took of right whales breaching in the same location over a year ago and gee, if I didn't know better, if I wasn't told they have already left the area, I would have sworn it was a right. At least it looked just like the video, without binoculars, without a camera. One can only hope, right?

But after searching online and reading the differences between rights and humpbacks I just couldn't land on an answer and decided to simply feel blessed that I was able to witness this whale, celebrate its existence and share this with you.  Moreso after we've had a whale-less season here in the Hammock.

So if you also saw the whale today it would be helpful if you would comment here with your thoughts and details...and better yet, if you took photos of the whale today please send them along to me and I will post it here for all to enjoy.  Whale on!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

As We Wait For The Whales...

Patience is certainly a virtue. Especially for those out watching and awaiting the Right Whales to enter our waters. In the meantime, I thought I would re-post the video I captured just over a year ago (January 12, 2011) when we had a number of whales having fun in the waters right off the shores of our condos in Hammock Dunes. Enjoy!

Or here's the link to the video if you'd like to watch it on You Tube.
- Whale on! 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Right Whales Shut Down Cape Cod Canal

BUZZARDS BAY — A pair of North Atlantic right whales swimming in the Cape Cod Canal led Army Corps of Engineers officials to close the waterway for four hours Monday.
The endangered marine mammals were spotted in the canal shortly after 9 a.m., Dennis Arsenault, an Army Corps marine traffic controller, said Monday. Two government ships were sent out to keep tabs on the whales, which were last seen heading east in a strong current near the Sagamore Bridge, most likely exiting into Cape Cod Bay, Arsenault said. The canal was reopened at 1 p.m.
The right whales are considered endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Fewer than 500 remain in the world, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society communications manager Karen Urciuoli. The conservation society, which has offices in Plymouth, was not directly involved in the sighting.
"This is about the time we start to see right whales in Cape Cod Bay," Urciuoli said Monday. "In the past few years, there's been about one sighting in the canal a year. It's really fantastic for them to spot them and shut the canal, to restrict the traffic. One of the leading dangers to the North Atlantic right whale is ship strike."
Closing the canal when right whales are spotted is standard operating procedure because of the whales' scarce numbers. The canal is 14 miles long and typically sees about 20,000 ships pass through its waters each year.
Since Nov. 30, right whales have been seen in the bay by spotters for the conservation society, Urciuoli said. A handful of right whales were seen in mid-December off the coast of Provincetown, according to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
The majority of the western population of North Atlantic right whales spends winters calving in coastal waters off southeastern U.S. lands. The whales move north to New England, the Bay of Fundy and beyond for summer feeding and nursery grounds.
Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay are designated by the federal government as areas of "high use" for right whales and a primary habitat.
In December 2008, the Cape Cod Canal was closed for 2½ hours because one right whale swam east to west through the canal, exiting at Buzzards Bay.
Before that, the last one to traverse the canal was seven years previous, according to a Center for Coastal Studies spokesman.
Staff writer Steve Doane contributed to this report.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Survey Team Kicks Off Jan 3

The endangered North Atlantic right whale utilizes the Atlantic Coast off Georgia and Florida as calving grounds. Volunteer spotters, typically living in high rise condos beachside, report right whale sightings to track the whales' movement and behavior patterns along the Atlantic Coast in an effort to determine migration characteristics of these highly endangered marine mammals. This information is also shared with area boaters and alerts the shipping lanes in an effort to avoid further deaths of these right whales by collision. 

The 2012 survey year starts Tuesday, January 3rd. Reminder to all volunteers, both new and returning - the Survey Training Class will be held Monday, January 2nd from 2 to 4:30pm at the Center for Marine Studies, Whitney Lab at Marineland. 

Our Mission Statement:
- To be the eyes, ears and voice of the northern right whale in its only 
known calving ground off the Florida Atlantic coast.
- To cooperate with scientists and resource managers and report whale 
sightings to alert ships at sea in order to reduce ship collisions, the 
greatest known cause of death of northern right whales.
- To gather scientific data regarding right whale occurrence, movement 
patterns and behavioral characteristics in the southeast critical habitat.

Please add these phone numbers to your cell address book: 
> OR CALL THE HOTLINE 1-888-979-4253 / 1-888-97-WHALE

Reporting Strategy
For any sighting, be prepared with the following
􀀹 Date, time and location of the sighting
􀀹 Number of animals sighted
􀀹 Distinctive features and estimated length
of the animal
􀀹 How you can be contacted (i.e. contact
information for original report; how an
observer can be contacted)
􀀹 Signs of injury or entanglement
􀀹 Description of behavior, any injuries
and/or entangling gear
􀀹 If the whale is dead, the condition of the

For more information: Marineland Right Whale Blog