Northeast Florida, from Daytona Beach to Amelia Island, has lovely beaches that are popular with tourists from spring through fall. But cold fronts often bring raw, chilly days in winter, and the surf temperature drops into the 50s.
This is the season when tourists seek the warmer waters of Miami, the Keys and the Caribbean. But the wintry seas of Florida’s northern Atlantic coast, and the similar shorelines of Georgia and South Carolina, happen to be the perfect place for certain mama whales and their offspring.
These are the only known calving grounds of the northern right whale, an endangered species that numbers around 500 known individuals. Mothers give birth to their calves within a few miles of the shoreline, and often approach within easy spotting distance of shorebound observers, who watch for the whales’ distinctive v-shaped blows through binoculars.
We are off to a promising start this season. The first mother-calf pair in my neck of the woods was seen a week after Thanksgiving. Whale No. 2753 (the numbers are assigned by researched based at the New England Aquarium), a mature female named Arpeggio, and her calf were spotted by observers at a condominium in Flagler Beach, about a dozen miles from my home. Arpeggio has a history of wandering actively along the local shoreline in seasons when she has a baby with her.
As of last week, a total of nine mother-calf pairs had been spotted in various places along the southeastern coast. This is undoubtedly a relief to researchers and whale-lovers, who were startled at the paucity of whale sightings last season. A report by the Associated Scientists at Woods Hole noted that only seven calves were identified last year in the entire southeastern region, down sharply from 21 and 19 the two previous years. Closer to home (for me), the Marineland Right Whale Project, a largely volunteer effort that is entering its 13th season, saw only a single right whale - a yearling born in 2011 - in the 50-mile stretch of shoreline from St. Augustine to Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona, that includes the beach near my house.
The water was unusually warm last winter, and nearly all of the whale sightings were farther north. Last year’s mild winter alone probably does not account for the low number of whale births, however. Right whales have a gestation that lasts about a year, so any pregnancies - or, in this case, non-pregnancies - seem more likely to be connected to conditions in the whales’ feeding and breeding habitats farther north, in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, during the preceding one or two years. But scientists are still working on understanding the factors that go into making baby whales.
These critters are studied closely. In summer, oceanographers connected with the New England Aquarium and various other agencies spend as many days as weather and funding permit observing the whales in their feeding grounds. In winter, they have made several forays to the stormy New England regions where the whales are believed to mate. They deploy underwater drones to listen for the whales’ calls and to measure the plankton on which the whales feed.
Scientists maintain a catalog of all known whales, like a book of mug shots. A parasite called whale lice causes white bumps, known as callosities, to appear on the whales’ heads. Each whale has a unique pattern of callosities. These patterns, together with other identifying marks and scars on the whales’ bodies, allow researchers to identify every known individual that has been photographed.
One female right whale was first photographed with a calf in 1935. She was spotted on multiple occasions until 1995, when she was last seen with an apparently lethal head wound inflicted by a collision with a ship. That female, who was sexually mature when first recorded, may have been nearly 70 years old, or even older, when she died. The whales’ typical life span is still being measured.
As most school children know, right whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. They got their name because they were considered the “right” whales to kill, since they are big, slow-moving, frequently found close to shore, and laden with oil-rich blubber. Only a handful of members of the North Pacific species remain. The South Atlantic population is also endangered. The North Atlantic species, having been legally protected since 1937, is slowly increasing in numbers. But it takes a long time to stabilize and restore a population of such a slow-breeding, long-lived mammal.
Ship strikes are the greatest danger to our local whales. Speed restrictions are enforced all along the southeast coast during the critical breeding season, especially near the busy ports in Jacksonville and Savannah, Ga. But fishing gear is also a threat.
A boater spotted a dead whale not far from my home last week, with fishing gear tangled around its tail. By morning the whale had washed up on Flagler Beach. It was a sad note in a generally happy season, made happier by the promising start to this year’s crop of calves.
If you find yourself near the coastline of north Florida sometime between now and March, you might want to grab a pair of binoculars - and a sweater - and take a walk on the beach. I can’t guarantee you a whale sighting. I’m still looking for my first whale myself. There’s a lot of beach and not too many whales. But you might get lucky, and in any event, you may discover a beach that you would like to visit in the summertime.