WHAT’S WITH THE WHALES? - a post by Susan van Hoek, GTM Research Reserve Educator
It was a warm, moonlit Saturday night as I drove through the countryside by the back roads from the St. Johns River to Marineland, accepting an invitation to the Marineland Right Whale Project’s mid-season gathering of volunteer whale watchers (now referred to as “citizen-scientists”) at UF’s Whitney Lab. Knowing that this year the whales hadn’t shown up, I was curious about what they would discuss.
Because there was little to report on the missing whales, AirCam pilot and Director of the Marineland Right Whale Project, Joy Hampp, gave a surprise presentation on her “summer job.” She helped track down manta rays off Matanzas Inlet from the open cockpit for a study conducted by Georgia Aquarium.
Little is known about the habits of the “mysterious” manta rays. Airborne searching made locating the rays easier than scanning for them from the surface by boat. The entire operation was televised for inclusion in a 2011 TV series titled “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin.” The following bits of information on the manta ray study are taken from the resulting TV video and Joy’s “Summary of the Right Whale Mid-Season Gathering:”
The Georgia Aquarium was focused on satellite tagging 10 manta rays off the Flagler Coastline last May and July. The pilot located manta rays from aloft and directed the team below to their target-species by boat.
From the bow of the boat, a researcher used a long rod to attach tags onto the rays. This appeared to be a tricky business, but with practice he managed to tag his quota of ten. The tags are designed to detach from the manta rays after several months and float to the surface. From there, radio information is transmitted to the researchers and the tags are
retrieved for further data analysis. The tags help scientists understand manta ray migration and feeding patterns.
The manta ray video was followed by a presentation on the Southern Right Whale calving season off the coast of South Africa from July through November. The Southern Atlantic Right Whale populations have rebounded there and now occur in the thousands compared to Northern Atlantic Right Whales that occur only in the hundreds.
Last to take the stage, Dr. Jim Hain, Principal Investigator of the Marineland Right Whale Project,reported, “Without a doubt, this 12th survey season has been our most unusual.” He spoke of the limited
results to date and cited examples to illustrate the unpredictability of Northern right whales:
Only one whale this season had been documented in the local area. A yearling calf was sighted January 23 off Crescent Beach, and again the next day in South Daytona. The mother was last seen off Crescent Beach in 2005 with another calf but has not been observed since. One mother, usually seen with a new calf each season and considered to be a regular to this coastline, appeared almost like clockwork in 1997, 2002, 2005, and 2008, but was not seen in 2010 or 2011. Another female, dubbed “Half-note,” was seen mid-December to the north of Marineland with
the first calf of the season. But in mid-January she was observed by aerial survey teams, again to the north, several times without her calf, (making this the 3rd calf she has lost in as many seasons, which Hain says is a rare occurrence).
Several other unusual cases were cited. For instance, for years the New England Aquarium has surveyed Northern right whales in the Bay of Fundy during the summer and fall. In the 2010 season, Bay scientists
recorded the smallest number of sightings and the fewest number of whales in the Aquarium’s 31-year history. The surface water temperature in the Bay was warmer than normal and may have resulted in diminished numbers. This correlation is still being examined as well as the possible effect on the whales migrating to our waters. Scientists have speculated about a two-year lag between the abundance of summer food resources for the whales and their calving rates. Dr. Hain said predictions are very hard to make in the face of highly variable populations, and the only way to draw meaningful conclusions is to maintain a consistent sampling effort. He emphasized how crucial it was to continue surveys with the same diligence as always because not seeing whales was also important to science[though later the surveys were discontinued]. He told the citizen-scientists, “Although we may feel that nothing is happening, the exact opposite is true. We are helping to demonstrate that there is a dramatic shift in right whale distribution that seems to correlate with
elevated water temperatures.”
Hain concluded the evening program by saying: “As we like to say, every day, every season, and every whale is different.”
Driving home, I wondered what was really going on off Florida’s northeastern coast. In the same region where practically no right whale sightings occurred this year, sea turtle patrol volunteer monitors had
recorded a greater number than normal of turtle nestings in 2011 for the second year in a row.
(Though the Marineland Right Whale Project was shortened this season, Joy was quoted in the St. Augustine Record as saying, “We encourage everyone to continue with observations as opportunities arise,
particularly those with waterfront homes.”)
Author Susan van Hoek, GTM Research Reserve Educator, is located at the GTM Reserve’s Marineland facility where the Marineland Right Whale Program is also housed during the months when the whales are normally seen off the coast of Northeast Florida.