Florida is a magnet for those wanting to winter in warmer weather. The Sunshine State is famous as a “snowbird” destination, and for migratory birds and butterflies. But did you know about Florida’s wintering whales?
Pregnant female right whales head south from feeding grounds off Canada and New England to give birth and nurse their calves in warmer coastal waters here in the south.
Facing a high risk of extinction, North Atlantic right whales, a “critically endangered” large whale species, are spotted during winter in the waters near Amelia Island, Florida, as well as nearby Cumberland Island, Georgia. The season for right whale activity near Amelia Island in northeast Florida starts in November and continues through March each year. Right whale researchers for many years have set up their winter base of operation here on Amelia Island at an oceanfront home on South Fletcher Avenue, in Fernandina Beach.
According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, the first right whales of this winter season 2010-2011 were just spotted south of Savannah, Georgia. Right whales are monitored in the waterways off coastal Florida and Georgia by various scientists. While estimates vary, the number of right whales is thought to be around 350 to 400-ish remaining worldwide.
Right whales are huge, reaching up to 55 feet long and weighing up to 70 tons. Once a target of whalers for their oil and whalebone, the right whale has been protected for 75 years starting in 1935. Even so, very few exist today. Although they’re huge, right whales can be hard to spot from a boat in the water (you may only see a blow in the distance). They have a distinctive V-shaped blow.
If a whale surfaces near a boat, mariners must depart immediately at a slow speed. Boats are not supposed to approach right whales and law dictates staying 500 yards away.
Looking back at 30 years of data in southeastern U.S. waters, the Florida-Georgia border has one of the heaviest concentrations of right whale sightings by researchers involved in conservation efforts. It is known as an area of calving grounds for the species, with frequent visits mainly by mother whales, their newborn calves, and some juveniles. This area is literally a nursery for the rarest large whale on the globe.
The whales in the vicinity of the Florida-Georgia border are at risk since they swim in busy shipping channels in the company of cargo and freight ships as well as Navy ships (Mayport, FL) and Navy subs (Kings Bay Submarine Base, St. Marys, GA). The jet black Trident submarines can sometimes be spotted passing by Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island, Florida. They pass through the channel to the submarine base.
RIGHT WHALE RESEARCH PROJECT
The New England Aquarium has a Right Whale Research Project that began back in 1980 to study the North Atlantic Right whale.
GUARDIAN ANGELS IN THE SKY
Aerial surveys are conducted over the waters of Florida and Georgia to attempt to spot and count right whale mothers and calves. Like guardian angels, they surveil the waters from above between December 1 to March 31st. Researchers track the whales carefully (by both sea and by air), flying planes along the shoreline. Referred to as “eyes in the sky” by one researcher with the New England Aquarium, the planes also help to prevent vessel strikes with the whales. Flight crews watch the waters from above and when whales are spotted, they radio alerts to the captains of ships in the area.
Both commercial fishing net entanglements and vessel collisions are major threats to this critically endangered species. Other obstacles to their survival include “reproductive rate, habitat loss, disease and environmental contaminants,” according to the New England Aquarium website.
JACKSONVILLE RIGHT WHALE FESTIVAL
The Sea Walk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach, Florida is the venue of the Florida Right Whale Festival, a celebration of the North Atlantic right whale on Saturday, November 20, 2010 from 10 am to 4 pm. A family-oriented festival, the event features activities for kids, food, music, a beach cleanup, and a beach run.
Festival displays will include a life-size blow-up right whale calf, real whale bones and baleen, and an obstacle course for kids. Children can also earn a prize by visiting various educational booths, collecting stamps, and completing their “Right Whale Passport” (available for pick-up at the festival while supplies last).
AMELIA ISLAND RIGHT WHALE LECTURE
The Wild Amelia Festival, scheduled for May 20 – 22, 2011 celebrates the local Amelia Island area bioregion with eco-tours, seminars, and exhibits. One of the pre-festival “Wild Nites” lectures is about Right Whales, to be held Tuesday, December 14, 2010. (See the full schedule of the Nature Festival’s lecture series below).
RIGHT WHALES, MANATEES & MORE
Wild Amelia presents “Wild Nites” Lecture Series
This year Wild Amelia Nature Festival will be hosting a series of seminars scheduled in advance of the festival. Learn more about nature and the local environment by attending these “Wild Nites” FREE lectures.
Stargazing – Friday November 19, 2010 at Fort Clinch State Park, Amelia Island
Enjoy an evening of stargazing at historic Fort Clinch, where the absence of artificial light makes this an ideal venue to watch the night sky. Guest astronomers from the Northeast Florida Astronomical Society will bring large telescopes to the Fort and serve as narrators for the evening as they turn their scopes towards the autumnal skies. The public may enter the Fort at 6:30 p.m., and the stargazing program will begin at 7 p.m. Attendees should bring chairs, a flashlight, and insect spray, just in case. Bring a blanket to spread if you wish to lay down and look up. (It could be a chilly evening at the waterfront, so dress accordingly.)
The following lectures leading up to the 2011 Wild Amelia Festival will begin at 7 pm at the Peck Recreation Center, 516 South 10th Street, Fernandina Beach.
“The Whales Are Coming” – Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Katie Jackson with the FL Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will speak about this majestic marine mammal.
“Manatees – The Gentle Giants” – Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Rachel Cimino, Marine Mammal Research, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission;
“The American Alligator” – Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Chip Campbell from Okefenokee Adventures will share his passion for this and other reptilians.
“Saving the Sea Turtles” – Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Mary Duffy, Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch, Inc.,and Sandra Baker-Hinton, coordinator for sea turtle monitoring in Ft Clinch State Park will reveal the intriguing practices of these endangered reptiles that visit our beaches every year.
“The Magic of Cumberland Island” – Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Rene Noe, Park Ranger Cumberland Island National Seashore
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