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February 17, 2009

Whales' 'first line of defense'

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

FLAGLER BEACH, Florida - The wind is out today in Florida, and that means my quest to see one of the most endangered whales in the world will be shifted a bit.


Patsy Sater and Paul Henderson watch for endangered right whales from a restaurant balcony in northern Florida.

I had planned to venture into the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat with scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to search for right whales. But the wind gusts are too strong, which makes boat trips like this risky and unproductive. It's difficult for the researchers to spot the whales in choppy waters.

So I went to my plan B, which ended up being tons of fun: I traveled by foot and car up the Florida coast with a group of retirees who look for the school-bus-sized whales from the shore.

Right whales are sometimes called “urban whales” because they live in waters so near the East Coast of the U.S. These volunteer whale watchers say the massive black whales sometimes come very near to the beach. Last Friday they spotted 11 of them at once - a group of juveniles playing.

Armed with binoculars, they troll up and down the coast looking for blackish blobs of whale on the horizon. John Kostiak, 62, told me the whales look like black Sharpie marks on the blue ocean.  When they spot a whale, they call in backup from scientists who then alert the shipping community to their presence. Collisions with ships are a major cause of right whale deaths, and these volunteers see themselves as a first line of defense. If they see a whale before a ship does, they could save a life. Only 400 of these whales exist, so each is critically important to the species' survival.

The volunteers showed true dedication: One wore whale earrings and a whale necklace. Another goes out on these watches four days a week - spending four hours each day just looking for the behemoths. They all spoke of the intense joy they feel when they find a whale. That's relatively rare, though. One told me he's only called in two sightings in eight years.

Like others, they hope their efforts contribute a small part to protecting a creature they’ve come to love. They also say they're raising whale awareness through their efforts. Many people - even in this part of north Florida - don't realize right whales give birth right off the coast here, well within eyesight.

Each morning, the volunteers are doing their part to change that.

- John Sutter,

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Filed under: Animals • environment

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Franko   February 17th, 2009 12:03 pm ET

Amount of trouble saving this whale dialect, is it worth it ?
Lots of whales down South, bring some North
The 2 populations have not bred for a long while

Paige   February 17th, 2009 5:29 pm ET

That wouldn't help, because they are two different species and they wouldn't breed but even if they did it wouldn't help because it would be a cross breed. But if they were the same that would work. Anyways its a good effert to help save these endangered animals. If people were more informed and more active about there situation it would be easier for these big guys to survive. Just an idea but mabey somebody could come up with a whale radar system for the people shipping stuff in that area. Kinda like they did with the whole bird plane issue.

Franko   February 18th, 2009 11:31 am ET

Who has tried interbreeding North and South Whales ?
Perhaps genetic diversity is neded, to smarten them up ?
ObeWan, case in point, at IQ 125

"High numbers of right whales seen in Gulf of Maine"
Was 320 a year ago, now 400
Dubling how quickly ? Perhaps, soon, run you SUV on RightWhale Oil ?

Donald   February 19th, 2009 6:32 am ET

There have been sittings of Whale Sharks(not really whales) Sperm Whales and Killer Whales off of the AL / Ms Gulf Coast in the past few months. I thought Killers were cold water dwellers. I'll start spending more time at the beach now that theres a possibilty of seeing a Right Whale near inshore. Sand Island is a barrier island that juts out into the Gulf near MobileBay. That would be a great place to set up a Whale watching station.

Franko   February 20th, 2009 8:04 am ET

Estimated less than 100 before 1935 - Double every 40 years ?
Now that the bad, recessive genes, are gotten over, faster doubling ?

"Females reach sexual maturity at 40-45 feet, as early as five years of age. The young right whale stays with its mother for 1 year."
"The right whale gestation period is about 12 months"

How soon before RightWhale Cooking Oil ?

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