Thursday, December 01, 2016


We need a St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, which will help protect the winter calving grounds of our 350-500 North Atlantic Right Whales. Nothing says "NO" to offshore oil drilling louder than the words "protected area" in an Environmental Impact Statement -- the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore will protect from annihilation our endangered right whales (and other critters), as well as protecting and preserving our beaches, our history, our way of life, our jobs and tourist economy.

Posted November 29, 2016 06:18 am -
Updated November 29, 2016 06:47 am
Right whales face increasing risks, whale watchers needed

North Atlantic right whales will soon migrate to Northeast Florida for calving season, but with numbers hovering around the low 500s mark, sightings of the endangered species have become a rarity.

“They’re big animals, but there aren’t that many of them,” said Joy Hampp, program coordinator of the Marineland Right Whale Project. “It’s much harder to spot them than you think.”

Hampp said the monitoring and tracking of right whales relies almost entirely on reported sightings, making volunteer efforts a key component in the species’ survival.

“Because sightings are so few and the data is so important, the only way we are really going to be able to find the whales is to have as many eyes as possible on the ocean,” Hampp said.

Although the season won’t officially begin until the first week in January, Hampp said preparations to recruit and train volunteer whale watchers is already underway. Informational presentations aimed at new volunteers, surveyors and spotters begin next week, and a right whale survey training class will be held at the end of December.

This is the 17th season for the Marineland Right Whale Project, which now has about 200 volunteers spanning from St. Augustine Inlet to Ponce Inlet. Hampp said volunteers are usually required to patrol their sector once a week, with each patrol lasting a total of four hours across five designated points.

Sightings are immediately reported to the project, which then designates a trained team to photograph and identify the whales.

“We don’t have a good way at this point to physically attach satellite tags and track the whales like we can with other animals,” Hampp explained. “So we rely on mark recapture, which is photographing the whale and identifying their positions, that’s how we follow who is where and what’s going on.”

Northeast Florida is one of the only known calving grounds for the entire North Atlantic right whale population. The whales typically migrate into the area around December to give birth and then remain in Florida’s warm coastal waters as calves gain strength until February or March.

Hampp said conservation efforts have raised awareness in the general public, expanded critical habitat for right whales and placed enforcements on ship speeds. But despite those positive changes, right whale populations aren’t improving.

“Up until three years ago, the population was growing at two percent,” she said. “Now the habitat has changed and their migrations have changed. It’s getting harder to see where they’re going.”

Erin Handy, the Florida representative for Oceana, said right whales are facing increasing risks of ship strikes, entanglements and noise pollution, including from seismic testing. There are four seismic air gun blasting permits pending off the coast of Florida.

“If these permits are not denied, we will have seismic air gun ships in the water off our beaches in 2017,” Handy said. “The bottom line is that the sound from those blasts travels about 2,500 miles, so there’s no way for the whales to escape the sound.”

More immediate threats come in the form of ship strikes and entanglements. Handy said earlier this year, a calf was struck and killed by a ship before making it all the way north. According to research collected by a team of scientists for Oceana, 13 whales were struck by vessels from 2006 to 2010, resulting in five deaths and one serious injury.

Entanglements are even worse, Handy said.

From 2010 to 2015, entanglements in fishing nets or traps account for 85 percent of right whale deaths.

With so many dangers threatening to eliminate the species, Handy said volunteer involvement is critical in protecting the remaining right whales.

“It’s very expensive to do aerial monitoring, so when a citizen calls in a sighting, they’re able to help organizations use the limited funding they have to get crucial information,” Handy said. “They can know from the markings which whale it is, where it’s been and if it’s had a calf. That information is so important.”

Handy said she’s worried about the species’ survival, especially as the National Marine Fishery Service decides whether it will issue incidental harassment authorizations (IHA) to approve seismic testing permits.

“That means the company conducting the permits will have permission to disturb, injure or kill a certain number of marine mammals,” Handy said. “If they hit that number, they have to stop testing. The problem is, what’s the monitoring for that? If an animal is injured of killed, 9 times out of 10 they don’t wash ashore.”

Hampps agrees there’s a lot of speculation about the right whales’ future, but she’s still an optimist at heart.

“There are a lot more people looking and paying attention than there were 17 years ago,” she said.

She added that the more volunteers who participate, the more data gathering can occur for the small population.

“To participate in this is contributing to the conservation of this endangered species,” Hampp said. “That’s priceless.”

For more information on the right whale presentations or becoming a volunteer whale watcher, email Joy Hampp at To sign a petition against seismic testing or to learn about dangers to marine mammals, go to

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