Citizens and snowbirds team up with Marineland’s scientists to save endangered species

By Caroline Young |

Canadians Sharon and Basil Gribbon were dedicated to helping save whales long before the 2-year-old endangered North Atlantic right whale was pulled to shore dead on Feb. 2.

“We have loved whales since the first time we saw the sea,” Sharon, a retired employee of the Health Agency of Canada, said. “They’re such a spectacular mammal.”

The couple has visited St. Augustine since 1999 and spent winters here for the past three years. They are helping to prevent the endangered North Atlantic right whale from disappearing forever.

“People are so dedicated to these mammals but still, there’s so many questions,” Sharon said. “There’s so much about them we don’t know and that makes it challenging.”

Some snowbirds, like the Gribbons, come to St. Augustine for three months every year and spend a large chunk of that time volunteering for the Marineland Right Whale Project, which is made up a citizens and scientists working together.

“When we look at the population of whales, people say, ‘So what?'” Basil, a retired chemist and director of Health, Safety and Environment with JDS Uniphase, said. “So if they die off, that says we can’t manage them, so how can we manage other things?”

Project coordinator Joy Hampp has been the leader from day one when Marineland’s senior scientist Jim Hain put it all together in 2001.

Today, over 200 dedicated volunteers are part of the team to help conserve the North Atlantic right whales.

Hampp began as the volunteer organizer.

“In order to do the research we do, we have to find whales… whale sightings are sparse,” she said. “So we need lots and lots of eyes looking for us.”

The northern volunteers mainly come from New York, Canada, Michigan and England, according to Penny Bellas, a St. Augustine local who has volunteered for the Project for five years. Bella is the sector 1 team leader, guiding 35 volunteers in whale-spotting from the St. Augustine pier almost to Matanzas Beach.

“Our ultimate goal is to spot the mother with the new calf and have them photographed and identified,” Bellas said.

The Project has five sectors, covering the coastline from St. Augustine to Ponce Inlets, about 50 nautical miles. Each sector has a group of volunteers whale-spotting every morning for four hours.

Eventually, Hampp became trained as a responder and began taking photographs of the animals and collecting data. Her role expanded to analyzing and making identifications to create reports on the whales and submit them to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

The right whales have distinct growths on their heads, which makes it easier to track and identify them.

“They seem to have numbers and names because of these ‘fingerprints’… because they’re so discernable,” Sharon said. “The state of Florida has actually gotten boats where they’ve gone out and taken DNA samples when a mother and a calf are spotted.”

Hampp said the Project’s goal is to monitor the population and learn as much about the species as they can. Hampp is also a trained pilot and conducts aerial ocean surveys to pinpoint whale locations.

“The number of animals said to be alive is 473,” she said.

“In years past, the largest source of mortality was ship strike, so there was a lot of focus on that.”

As far as preventative regulations go, rules are in place to control ships’ speeds during the right whales’ critical habitat period, which is normally December to March or April.

“So during that time period, ships 65 feet and larger must slow down to 10 knots or less as long as it safe to do so,” Hampp said.

She said compliance with the rules has been positive and have produced fewer reported ship strikes to the whales.

“We’re still seeing scars on the whales, so we know they’re coming into contact with the ships, but now were seeing fewer deaths,” Hampp said. “Conversely, now we’re seeing more of a problem with entanglement.”

The issue results in tragedies, such as the 2-year-old right whale that died after being entangled in fishermen’s gear for weeks. But Hampp said there is nothing Florida can do to change the types of fishing gear used because most of it comes from the whales’ summer feeding grounds up north.

The rope which ensnared the 2-year-old female can be seen in her mouth.

“We don’t have that kind of fishing gear,” Hampp said. “That kind of equipment is used from the Northeast to North Carolina.”

However, she said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created trained teams to disentangle whales once they reach the area. The FWC’s efforts have already made a huge difference.

She said the Project works to collect accurate information on the species in hopes to guide resource managers and decision makers to make better political decisions to preserve the whales.

“So if and when those kinds of issues appear, we have good solid data,” she said. “We’d like to think they’d be here for future generations.”

Hampp said the good news is they found the North Atlantic right whale population has recently increased by 2 percent, which is better than nothing.

“We anticipate that as the population increases, the potential for whale-human interaction may increase,” she said.

Bellas is a perfect example of someone who devotes a big chunk of her time to the whales.

“We traveled to Mexico and Canada and many places searching out whales as our primary goal,” she said. “I got to go to South Africa…and we went to see whales and talk to people about whales.”

Bellas said the Southern right whales, which spend summers in the coastal waters of South Africa, South America and Australia, have over 10,000 in their species.

“They’re not so interested in counting there,” she said. “They’re more interested in the behaviors and feedings. They don’t have to worry about the population.”

But Bellas said the project hopes all their sightings, documenting and awareness of the whales’ population will help get the numbers back up. She said the build up is slow. When she started, there were about 350 North Atlantic right whales left.

“There were tens of thousands of these whales at one time,” she said.

And Sharon Gribbon is trying to get in touch with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada to see if they are conducting research and making changes in their fishing lines.

“Here we have almost eradicated an entire species,” she said. “These whales are very elusive … what amazes me is how little is known about them.”

As soon as he goes home to Canada next month, Basil said he is going to talk to his friends working in electronics to see if there is a way for ships to use propellers that produce an underwater sound to scare the whales away.

“A mechanism can be made where a sound device can be placed on the ships which makes [the whale] say, ‘I don’t like that, I don’t want to be there,'” Basil said. “Because of the way the props [propellers] are designed they can’t hear the props making noise, so why not reverse it so it does make some kind of noise?”

He said he thinks there has to be a fairly basic and “cost-effective” way to create some kind of device to amplify the sound of an engine to be transmitted for certain distances in the ocean.

“The technology in a phone is probably as simple as what you need,” Basil said. “You’ve got a microphone, you’ve got an amplifier … it’s just how do you package it and put it under the water.”

Basil said he thinks the equipment to create a system to keep the ships and whales away from each other already exists. It just needs to be modified so it can be attached to ships’ propellers.

“There’s people out there who know what to do, someone’s just got to say, ‘I’ll do it.'”

The Marineland Right Whale Project combines a strong mix of loyal locals and out-of-towners with hard-working scientists. With the fusion of their passion and science, the team hopes for a promising future for the North Atlantic right whales.

Photos courtesy of Penny Bellas, Gian Louis Thompson and  NOAA Fisheries Services Research Permit #594-1759-00

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