Saturday, December 25, 2021

South Ponte Vedra Beach plays crucial role in right whale success. (Caren Burmeister, Florida Times-Union, March 5, 2010)

Enactment of legislation creating a St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore will help preserve, protect and interpret the natural history of St. Augustine, including endangered right whales, who have their babies here in St. Johns County.  From Florida Times-Union:

 South Ponte Vedra Beach plays crucial role in right whale success

Caren Burmeister

Florida Times-Union

March 5, 2010

Three centuries of commercial whaling nearly exterminated the North Atlantic right whale that's seen off the coast of Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra Beach during the winter calving season.

The whales' thick blubber fueled lamps, lubricated machines and helped form lard, soap, paint and varnish.

Whalebone, the hairy baleen plates in the whales' upper jaws, was carved into shaving brushes, corsets, buggy whips and umbrellas.

The very attributes that sustained the whales also made them the "right whales" to harpoon. By 1935, when federal anti-whaling measures went into effect, their numbers had dwindled to almost nothing.

Gradually, the endangered species, which can grow to about 60 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons, is coming back. Now, biologists believe there are about 350 of them.

A whale observation house in South Ponte Vedra Beach is contributing to that success. Rented during the calving season, it's the "nerve center" of the North Atlantic Right Whale Project, where whale sightings are relayed to commercial ships and boaters seven days a week.

Ship strikes are the primary cause of death for right whales. Ships are required to slow to 10 knots and to steer clear when a whale is seen, particularly in the critical habitat region from Sebastian Inlet to Brunswick, Ga.

A team of biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission live in the house on South Ponte Vedra Boulevard, just south of Guana Reserve, from November through March. Using radios, computers, pagers, cell phones and e-mail alerts, they share whale coordinates received from survey planes with the Coast Guard, Navy and commercial and recreational boaters.

Biologists also notify an aerial survey team at the St. Augustine airport of sightings called into the whale reporting hot line and track updates received every two minutes from a satellite phone in an observation plane.

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The whale project office on the second floor of the South Ponte Vedra Beach vacation home faces sliding-glass doors that open onto a wooden balcony. Occasionally, team members spot whales while looking through the glass window. On Sunday, one team member's cat sat on the patio and bathed itself while another member's dog barked from an upstairs bedroom.

But the home's creature comforts end when the weather is good and whale reports come in.

"This is kind of grand central station," said Katie Jackson, a biologist and member of the right whale project team.

So far this year, survey teams along Florida's coast have confirmed 14 mothers and calves, said Tom Pitchford, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

As of Wednesday, about 170 right whales have been counted off the Southeast coast. About 115 of them were seen off St. Johns and Flagler counties, more than usual because of the cold weather.

Normally, right whales are seen in the region from Jacksonville to Savannah. This year, most have been seen south of Jacksonville, between South Ponte Vedra Beach and Matanzas Inlet and Ormond Beach, where water temperatures are a few degrees warmer.

Depictions of those whales and their distinguishing features, such as boat scars and fishing line entanglements, appear on rows of identification cards tacked to the office wall.

When a whale sighting is confirmed, the biologists head out to sea to collect skin samples for an ongoing genetic study. They have a federal permit to do that.

As their boat comes within about 50 feet of the whale, one of the biologists shoots a dart from a crossbow. The dart tip strikes the side of the whale, collecting a pencil eraser-sized piece of skin, then the arrow bounces off the whale into the water and is pulled back into the boat.

Tara Dodson, St. Johns County's habitat conservation coordinator, went on one of the trips in early February to help record Global Positioning System radar locator coordinates and the whales' behavior. It was her first time.

"That goes down as the second most epic day of life, next to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro," Dodson said, referring to a 2006 trek to the peak in Tanzania. "I kept going 'ahhhh.' It was absolutely amazing."

The team darted two whales that day, getting close enough to see their "callosities," or raised rough skin patches that help biologists distinguish one whale from another.

"It really puts into perspective how massive and beautiful they are," Dodson said.

The biopsy is used to determine maternity and paternity, calf survival rates and the health of whales that are ill or have traumatic injuries, Pitchford said. He said the whales show no reaction to the dart.

"It helps us monitor the population and its health," Pitchford said.

Jackson carries laminated photos of the whales on the boat so they don't biopsy the same whale twice. The biologists also don't dart calves until they are at least 30 days old, she said.

Mother whales give birth about once every three years to one calf. Last winter, northern right whales set a record by delivering 39 calves in the region. That's the most calves born since records were first kept in the early 1990s.

The right whale project team is hoping for a repeat performance.

Caren Burmeister can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6321.

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