Passion drives local project to negate human impact on right whales

By Caroline Young |

Day one of whale spotting with the Marineland Right Whale Project — it was a chilly, nebulous February morning. I took a windy bike ride to the St. Augustine pier and thought for certain the whale-spotters would cancel because of the weather.

But I was five minutes early and the last to arrive. When I walked up to the group of older people with raingear and binoculars, there was no sign of plans changing.

“The core of this program is these volunteers,” Marineland’s senior scientist, Jim Hain, said. “From just south of Jacksonville Beach, the whales are coming in but they’re very few in number… There’s just a handful of whales, and the only way to catch that is if you have a big sighting effort.”

On a dreary morning when most would rather be curled up in bed, the group radiated enthusiasm. These folks had passion I could feel seeping into my bones. I went from feeling groggy to completely awake. It was contagious. They seemed to have abundant energy- more than my friends and I, and we are at least 30 years younger.

They are the eyes, ears and voice for North Atlantic right whales. They are a handful of volunteers from the Project, a group that is wrapping up its 11th season. They combine scientific research and study with stewardship to help preserve the North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered whale species in the world.

On February 3, I saw firsthand the loss of a right whale to entanglement on Butler Beach. I peered into the whale’s massive mouth, standing only a few feet away from her.  There it was- the thick, deadly fishing rope wrapped up in her baleen.

I knew the North Atlantic right whales are endangered and they may disappear from the world forever mainly because of human impact. Although it has been illegal to hunt right whales since 1937, researchers from the New England Aquarium reported that about 40 percent of dead right whales die from ship strikes and another 12 percent from fishing line entanglements.

But I did not know how many other humans were doing the reverse, right here in St. Augustine.

“Our lookouts start at 8 o’clock in the morning, and at 10 minutes of 8, these people are standing there ready to go,” Hain said. “You know you couldn’t hire people to do that, and if you had employees, could you imagine the complaining about sick leave and personal days and over-time and benefits and all that kind of stuff?”

I shook hands with Bert Celeste, a tall slender man with glasses and slight facial hair.  I learned later he is a retired biologist with an unwavering love of wildlife. He has been volunteering with the Project for 10 years.

“It just sort of grows on you,” Celeste said. “I was not a marine biologist but I am interested in all forms of life… and there’s always that chance of spotting a right whale.”

Next, I met Joanie Selph, an angelic blonde woman, who is new to the Project.  A retired U.S. Postal Service worker, Selph moved to St. Augustine from Gainesville after losing her husband suddenly while on vacation.

“Once I went to my first right whale meeting, I was hooked,” she said.

And there were the Gribbons, the couple from Canada, who spend their winter months in St. Augustine. I had met Basil and Sharon Gribbon on Butler Beach weeks earlier, when the dead right whale was towed onto shore. Fighting through her tears, Sharon had told me about the Project. She kindly invited me to join the Wednesday whale-spotting group.

“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.”

Every hair on my body was standing straight up, the wind was blowing full force, fog masked most of the sky and the ocean waves were angry. We didn’t see a whale that morning. There are several mornings the Project volunteers spend eagerly scanning the ocean until noon, and don’t spot a single whale. With only 473 left in the entire world, that is to be expected for the Project leaders and volunteers.

“This takes tenacity,” Basil said. “It takes lots of patience and perseverance.”

He said fellow volunteers keep him motivated on days like that February morning.

Project coordinator Joy Hampp said they started with just 35 volunteers. Today, there are over 200 devoted locals and snowbirds from places like Canada and New England. There are five teams and each one has an assigned leader.

With data sheets firmly in his grip, I knew Celeste was in charge of our Wednesday morning whale-spotting group. The sheets include information about the weather on particular days, including cloud clover and Beaufort Sea state, a descriptive way to estimate wind.  Sector leaders are also in charge of recording the latitude and longitude of each whale-spotting location.

Once a year, the North Atlantic right whales migrate about 1500 nautical miles from their feeding grounds near New England and Canada to Georgia and Florida coastlines to give birth.

“They can’t handle the cold water like adults can,” she said.

Because the calves are born without an insulating blubber layer, the southern waters serve as their ideal, and only, feeding grounds. The whales travel to waters off northeast Georgia and Florida between December and March. Sometimes, they will travel all the way to Miami, according to Hampp.

I became captivated by raw passion when I stepped into the GTM-NERR Science center in Marineland, home of the Project’s offices. Hampp, her eyes wide with excitement, took me through the steps, the process of the day-to-day search for right whales.

On active days during the season, Hampp and Hain’s office is in response mode, waiting for a phone call from a whale-spotter. During the late mornings and into afternoons, they will go up in the Project’s aerial survey plane. If a group spotted whales in the morning, the planes help Hain and Hampp to verify their sex and ages.

“The plane ads great visibility, we can be right on top of whales,” Hampp said. “We’re flying over and we’re saying, ‘No, it’s not a mother-calf, it’s two juveniles… that’s the advantage.”

Hain said the volunteers are imperatively useful because the planes are only 25 to 50 percent effective. Certain factors affect the whales’ visibility from the plane, including the sea state and the waves on certain days.

“The whales are diving… They’re up and down,” Hain said. “If you’re flying at 100 mph, there’s a chance you’re going to miss them.”

In the office, Jim and Joy study the distribution of the right whales, as well as their demographics, abundance, reproduction, behavior and habitat use.

“It becomes more than this detached science going on….You end up really caring about the population and what you’re doing and the individuals that you’re studying,” Hain said. “You’re just trying to think of better ways to do your work.”

And they use the data from the whale-spotters to help them see which whales are here.

“In particular, we want to identify the moms because we want to know how many calves are born,” Hampp said. “That gives us some indication of how the habitat is being used.”

Over the past 11 years, the project members have seen mothers come back several times with new babies. Adult females usually do not travel to Florida or this area of the Southeast unless they are pregnant.  They see the same adult females roughly every three years, the time it takes them to recover between pregnancies.

“We see a mother who comes down with her calf two or three times, and she comes to the same relative area of coastline during the same relative time period,” Hampp said. “We find they have a certain level of habitat preference.”

Hain and Hampp began studying the communication between right whales three years ago.  They are working to find what sounds they make, how far away they can be heard and how often they are communicating with each other. They are especially focused on the mothers and calves, the most vulnerable population here.

“When we started this project, we would have bet money that the mothers and calves are talking to each other,” Hain said. “But it’s almost exactly the opposite of what we would have guessed going in.”

He showed me a sonogram of one mother-calf conversation he analyzed and the vocal line was flat, except for a small portion. Hain listened for about an hour and a half and the mother was only vocalizing for two minutes. Despite his initial hypothesis, he is finding them to be 90 to 95 percent silent together.

“The mother is very protective of her calf and she doesn’t want to get involved with any of these boisterous males and the rowdy groups,” Hain said. “She is not attracting attention to herself.”

But they are starting to realize there may not be a need for a mother and calf to communicate vocally. Hain said there is less of a need for their communication here because it’s a different environment and calves have potential predators here, like great whites and orca whales. It is unlikely to spot a mother and calf pair more than a calf’s length away from one another.

“It kind of makes sense that the mom will not necessarily want to advertise… Wouldn’t it be prudent on the mother and calf’s side to keep that vocalization very self contained?”

Hain said this year was probably the Project’s best one yet and they can only get better at it.

“The first year, we were sort of finding our way and we weren’t really that good at it to be honest,” he said. “This year, we’ve gotten a lot better and we have better equipment, and we’ve learned how to unobtrusively approach whales.”

Arliss Ryan, a local author and Project volunteer, loves learning about the right whales.

Before having children in the 1970s, Ryan and her husband Eric lived on a boat for a year and a half, and sailed from England to California.  Ryan said they established a long-term connection to the sea and marine life during that time.

“The Project is a great match for us,” she said. “We’ve gotten to see the Project grow, meet a lot of interesting people and we have just learned a lot.”

Ryan, who just completed her 7th season with the Project, is interested in the behaviors of the different age groups and their reasons for traveling here. The Surface Active Groups, or the SAGS, are the young juveniles who are just old enough to be away from their mom.

“They hang around in these sort of gangs, and sometimes, they will show up playing around, rolling out in the ocean, and seeming to have a good time,” Ryan said. “Mothers and calves have their nursery here, but for teenage whales, it’s like they’re hanging out at the mall or something.”

She said even when whales are not spotted, data is still valuable.

“You find out if they were there before and now they are not,” she said. “Was there a change in water temperature? Or change of the overall current? Was there change in overall temperature this winter?”

Ryan wants more people to become educated about the right whales, and she knows once someone sees at least one, they will get it.

“You see these eyes light up… Even the adults don’t know these creatures exist. They have a vague sense whales are out there, but to actually learn the history of whaling, mothers giving birth, then they will start to care,” she said. “I want them to care about the ocean, the whales, the environment because then we’ll treat it differently… We’ll treat it better.”

But she feels positive about the Project’s progress despite the species’ fairly low numbers.

“I think, with the kind of effort everyone’s making, I’m optimistic this could make a difference for the right whale.”

After Hampp led me into another room of the science center, I met a woman who has been with the Project since day one. Sheila McKenney, a retired teacher and school principal, sat quietly and focused on the sketches of right whales in front of her. I noticed her silver whale necklace, complete with a mother and calf,  resting around her neck.

“I just love these animals,” she said. “I mean, how could you not?”

McKenney helps with identifying whales by their callosities, white spots, which are often called right whale footprints. Observing callosities is the easiest way to separate one whale from the next because each one has a unique pattern. And the New England Aquarium keeps a catalog of all known right whales in the world.

We get photographic evidence and we can match these to the catalog,” Hampp said. “At the end of the year we put it all together and we send photos and sighting reports up to the Aquarium… Some of our photos have been good enough to make it into the catalog.”

Hampp said the wealth of information available to right whale advocates and volunteers is incredible, and  the collaboration is unlike any other scientific research. She believes the cooperation is mainly because of the whales’ small population.

“In science, there’s a tendency for scientists to be very protective of their data because it’s like intellectual property, and you don’t want someone stealing your thunder, so to speak,” Hampp said. “There were so few sightings, it was hard for any one person to accumulate any significant amount of data, that it just made sense to share it.”

For a while, she said most people thought the right whales were completely gone until everyone pulled together.

McKenney said she is  on-call 24-7 for the Project.

“I would like to help preserve one of our last surviving large mammals that we have,” McKenney said. “There are so few of these and they are so amazing… Why would you want to destroy them? I have a thing about keeping them and wanting to save them.”

She also flies in the survey plane. But generally, Mckenney is the ground contact, which means she is in charge of communicating with everybody on land.

Along with McKenney and Hampp, Hain has grown an emotional connection to the right whales over the past 11 years.

“It’s a funny thing… you start out, you’re going be a scientist and you sort of do it in a very matter of fact way,” Hain said. “Then you get to know catalog 33-30 and catalog 16-22, and that she’s here with her 3rd calf… they tell you you’re supposed to be detached, and then what happens is, this project.”

He said a loss of one to two female right whales a year could lead to extinction. And visa versa.  There is a 2 to 2.5 percent increase in the North Atlantic right whale population. Hain believes there are two reasons why the number of whales has increased.

“Cynically I would say the whales are doing it all by themselves,” he said. “Just like any other population, they have their own  biology and they are reproducing, and some animals die and some animals live.”

On the other hand, he thinks the volunteer efforts, serious research and technological advancements must be helping the population.

“There is no exact answer in science,” he said. “But if you save one or two individuals per year, particularly if it’s a reproductive female, then that has an impact. ”

Hampp and Hain are constantly working to stay positive in their efforts. In the instance of the entangled whale on Butler Beach, they said they learned valuable information about sedation. That was the second right whale to ever be sedated.

“Getting the dosage right and learning how to administer the drug, and estimate the size and weight of the whale and figure out the dosage, it’s quite a skill,” Hain said.

And Hampp always tries to look at the glass half-full.

“I think, ‘You can’t do anything about the death now, so what can this teach us that we can learn that can make things better?'”

And she believes they will be able to keep the population stable and hopes to see it grow some in the near future.

“Technology is a wonderful thing, so you never know when someone’s going to come up with this great idea that might actually work.”

These little improvements are also adding up to increase the right whale population.

“Here’s a situation where were learning about sedating the whales and disentangling the whales,” Hain said. “This whale [on Butler Beach] died, but in the future, maybe the method will contribute to an outcome where the whale lives, so okay, we did enough.”

Both Hampp and Hain have put their heart and soul into the Project. And they relish every second of it.

“Working with the people and with the animals and learning to fly and being  a pilot… it’s just incredible,” Hampp said.

Though Hain works on other projects, this one is his favorite because of the people and their enthusiasm.

“If we have a really good whale sighting where there’s a mother-calf close to the shore, and somebody calls you on the phone, you can hear people screaming in the background,” he said. “Once they see their first whale, they’re hooked, in the same way that we are.”

Hain is in awe of the commitment and dedication of the Project’s volunteers.

“These are people who were teachers, engineers, biologists, administrators… And now we have this resource with all these volunteers that are very capable and looking for something interesting to do, so it all comes together.”

Another volunteer, Penny Bellas, became interested in helping right whales 20 years ago. She and her husband base their vacation destinations on right whales’ locations to learn as much as they can about the mammal.

“I so believe in this project and I want to do my part,” she said.

Bellas, a humorous and energetic woman, has been with the Project for five years and is now sector one leader.

“In sector one, we have dedicated local volunteers and many snowbirds,” she said. “Their enthusiasm and commitment motivate me to continue.”

Selph said she is grateful to have met her first friends after losing her husband and moving, and plans to volunteer next year. And the Gribbons will come back from Canada in January 2012, binoculars in hand- this time as sector leaders.

“Multiple factors make our involvement in the Project enjoyable- the chance to participate in a socially meaningful project where you can make a difference and the opportunity to work with committed volunteers,” Sharon said. “Learning that the population of the North Atlantic right whale has grown to about 470 is very encouraging.”

But when the whales seem to be hiding, Hampp said the hope of seeing one keeps everyone going.

“When you see them, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the 50th time, it’s still really exciting,” Hampp said. “And part of it is that you’re looking at one of maybe 450 animals, and knowing that what you’re doing is having an impact, that you’re helping to see that they’re going to stay here… These gigantic animals right off our coastline.”

She hopes that the Project allows generations down the road to have that same thrill of spotting a right whale.

“Anytime you set out to do anything with wildlife, you have to develop the systems and the approaches and the equipment,” Hampp said. “Because a lot of times, it doesn’t come off the shelf.”

When I walked into Bellas’ home, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had been invited to an end-of-season celebration, called A Whale of a Party. The invitation was in the shape of a whale, complete with sparkly callosities on its head.

It was like any other classy, relaxed social event I had attended. By far the youngest of the crowd, I became more and more amazed as I talked to one volunteer after another. Each person had his or her own whale-spotting adventures and inspirations to share with me. It seemed like there were volunteers from every corner of the world. But they all share a love for the animals, the environment, the ocean and the North Atlantic right whales.

McKenney was adorned in her gold whale earrings and necklace, Hampp sported her purse with whales stitched all over.  Hampp and Hain raffled off prizes, a stuffed whale, Project calendars and a mug and postage stamps with the Project’s emblem.

I gratefully accepted the Right Whale Project mug from Basil, who had won it. He scurried over to me and said, “Take it, I have three already.”

At the end of the party, Hain proudly reported the 11th season’s progress to his fellow whale-lovers.  He described the season as average with around 36 or 37 whale sightings. But together, the Project had spotted 19 mother calves, which is the most they’ve ever seen in one season.

Sounds of clapping and excitement filled the air that night at Bellas’ home as the volunteers celebrated their efforts. And there was one common thread connecting every person there, creating a force to rescue an entire species.

“It takes about 20 years to start making ground on a research project,” Hain said. “So, we are in this for the long haul.”

Photos Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries Services Research Permit #594-1759-00

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