Volunteers began watching for the North American Right Whales on January 2.
The North American Right Whale population is watched closely by scientists, trained volunteers, and beachgoers.
“We had 350 in 2001, and by 2009 more than 500,” Joy Hampp, said.
Hampp started her 17th season documenting the whales as they passed between St. Augustine and Ponce inlets. But this year, Hampp said she, and the 225 official volunteers, hadn’t seen any.
“Their movements are changing, so they are not showing up in their traditional habitats,” Hampp said. “Normally by mid to late December we are starting to see the whales in the northern part of Florida and Georgia.”
One mother and her calf were spotted off the coast of Georgia earlier in the month, and then in New Smyrna Beach. Hampp said they may have been further off shore, or passed the Flagler coastline at night.
An extensive data base is kept on the whales and their movement. Spotters know them by their callosities, permanent white spots formed by “whale lice,” across their backs.
“We had a slim year last year too,” she said. “The total number of whales sighted in the Southeast U.S. was less than 50. In Florida we had about eight.”
The lack of sightings on the East Coast is a concern for scientists like Jim Hain, who monitors the whales from Marineland and Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
“We are seeing a dramatic drop off in numbers this year,” Hain said. “Only three mothers and their calves and one adult male.”
The one male sighting this year was entangled in a rope, later removed by specialists. This was the second known entanglement for this whale.
“According to the New England Aquarium 83% of the known whale population has been entangled at least once, many twice,” Hampp said.
Hain said 400 whales were accounted for in September to October 2016, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, off the coast of Maine and into Canada. Now searchers can only account for 100 along the East Coast.
“The scientists believed they had a good handle on what the population was, growth rate and what it was doing, but in the past five years that’s all changed.” Hain said. “Now there’s a lot more uncertainty as to what’s going on.”
Outliners, whales found outside of expected areas, may account for some of the whales.
“We had one mother and her calf that swam around Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico and were spotted off the coast of Corpus Christi in 2004,” Hampp said. “The following summer she was in the Bay of Fundy.”
There are teams in Hammock Dunes and the Surf Club, where those who live in the condos on the shoreline can watch from their balconies.
Hampp is in need of volunteers for the team in the Hammock between the Matanzas Inlet and Jungle Hut Road. Volunteers are asked to commit to one morning a week from 8 a.m. to noon.
“The only way we can get the data is to have all of these eyes.”
Hampp takes her two-seater open plane out twice a week, flying to the Matanzas Inlet north to the St. Augustine Inlet and then south to the Canaveral Seashore.
The New England Aquarium is the keeper of the catalog of whales, which includes all of the sightings.
“From markings, they know who hasn’t been seen,” Hampp said. “With all of these people, this is probably one of the best collaborative research efforts you can find. All of the researchers who photograph the right whales contribute to the data base.”
“The rub is, at a time of an environmental and conservation need, funding is becoming more difficult,” Hain said.