Endangered right whales migrate to Florida’s Atlantic Coast from December to March.
Manatees may be the most lovable and panthers are the rarest, but Florida’s biggest endangered mammal may be one you didn’t know about — the northern right whale.
Right whales, which can grow to 70 tons and 55 feet long, are sighted every winter off the Atlantic coast between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of volunteers, plus visitors and residents of the northeastern coast, get the thrill of a handful of whale sightings between December and March each year.
Scientists estimate there are only 360 to 400 right whales. Despite decades of volunteer whale watchers, that number is decreasing and some predict the right whale will be extinct in 20 years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 20 right whales died in in 2017 and 2018 and there are only 100 breeding females left in the Atlantic. In further disturbing news, during the 2017-2018 season, no calves were born in the Southeast during the winter calving season.
In the 2018-19 season, the news has been better: By Feb. 8, 2019, five right whale calves had been spotted — the first ones seen in two years.
Frank Gromling, a volunteer and resident of Beverly Beach (just north of Flagler Beach) was the first volunteer in the first year of the Marineland Right Whale Project starting in 2001.
“I get a thrill out of every single one I’ve seen, and I’ve probably seen 250 or more,” Gromling said. “Every time I see one, it is like the first time. I consider it special – very special.”
Right whales summer off New England and Nova Scotia. In November, some of the females, a few adult males and assorted juveniles migrate south for the winter. By December, they’re acting like tourists, lolling around the beaches off Florida’s northern coast. The whales, however, are here on serious business: Some of the females are pregnant and it is in these waters nothern right whales give birth to calves and nurse them. In March, it’s time to head north again.
About 100 to 150 whales make the visit to Florida shores each year, according to Joy Hampp, who has been project coordinator for the Marineland Right Whale Project for the last decade.
Why are they “right” whales? Because early whalers appreciated that their high blubber content made them float when dead. Whalers reduced the population to a few dozen by 1900.
Right whales can live 50 or 60 years and are slow to reproduce.
Calves are born at about 2,000 pounds and 15 feet long. They can’t hold their breath long so they and their mothers must spend more time at the surface while in Florida, Hampp said.
How to see right whales in Florida
Unless you live near the beach in northeastern Florida, consider yourself blessed if you experience one right whale sighting in your lifetime.
Some years whale observers with the Marineland Right Whale Project count as few as 10 sightings all season.
Visitors to the coast between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach can’t count on a whale sighting — there are too few whales for that. But there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than hanging out on a Florida fishing pier scanning the ocean.
If you visit the Atlantic Coast between Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville in the winter, here’s how to increase your chances of spotting a whale, according to Joy Hampp:
- Keep binoculars handy, but scan the ocean without them from any higher vantage point.
- Whales are often in the company of dolphins with sea birds overhead, so if you see either of those, take a closer look for whales.
- The most likely way you’ll spot a whale? First you’ll see a lot of cars and a clump of people on the shoreline pointing and looking at the sea with binoculars. Since Flagler Beach has six miles of beachfront visible along A1A, it is a likely place to come upon a whale sighting in progress.
- You can identify right whales by these characteristics: They spout a V-shaped spray of water; they have no dorsal fin; they have whitish patches of raised and roughened skin (called callosities) on top of their heads, and their tales are black on both sides.
- Humpback whales do migrate through the same waters on their way to their Dominican Republic winter waters, but they move through earlier and later than right whales.
- Right whales were spotted off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2017-2018 winter season.
Gromling adds this advice:
- February seems to be the best month for whale sightings, though whales are present and observed from December to March.
- There are four fishing piers that make good whale-watching spots: The St. Augustine pier, the 800-foot-long pier in Flagler Beach, the Sunglow pier in Daytona Beach Shores and the Main Street pier in Daytona Beach.
About the Marineland Right Whale Project
With a patchwork of federal, state and private funding, the Marineland Right Whale Project coordinates volunteer teams with scientists in right-whale conservation efforts. It is not associated with the Marineland oceanarium.
Before and during the season, phone cards with right whale sighting information are distributed to residents, visitors, lifeguards and others who spend time at the beach. People are encouraged to phone the Right Whale Hotline — 1-888-97-WHALE –– if they see a whale. Each sighting triggers a follow-up visit by a response team of experienced individuals with cameras and GPS units who document whale movements and behavior. Teams track the whales as long as possible, sometimes for an entire day.
Since 2002, the project has used an AirCam, a twin-engine, slow-flight aircraft developed for National Geographic wildlife surveys, for both aerial surveys and sighting/photo responses.
The greatest threats to right whales are collisions from vessels, entanglement in trap/pot and gillnet fishing gear. Right whales are slow-moving and difficult to see even close to the surface because their profile features a broad, flat back and no dorsal fin.
Facts about right whales
- Right whales have been hunted for centuries for their blubber and oil
- One of the major causes of death for the right whales today is collisions with ships.
- Right whales feed on large schools of zooplankton and scientists do not believe they eat while in Florida, where this food source is not available in sufficient quantities, Gromling said.
- The right whale is one of the slowest swimmers of all the whales, rarely going faster than 5 miles per hour. They are known to be quite active, however, as they breach, lobtail and tail-slap.
- The whales have been protected from hunting since 1949.
- For information about right whales:
- Marineland Right Whale Project blog and website
- Northern Right Whale facts from NOAA
- Ten things you probably didn’t know about right whales
- If you spot a whale in Florida, call the whale hotline: 1-888-97-WHALE
Things to do near Flagler Beach and St. Augustine:
- St. Augustine, ideal for nature and history lovers
- Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south, is a smaller Spanish fort built 50 years after the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a great stop because you take a small boat to the fort past spectacular scenery. And it’s free.
- Princess Place Preserve, a nearby county park with an 1888 hunting lodge once owned by a princess. Good hiking and camping. Free.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park: Historic gardens plus unusual coquina-rock beach.
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town.
- Tomoka State Park, gateway to the Ormand Scenic Loop and Trail, a lovely ride, including along the beach past prime whale-watching sites.
- Faver-Dykes State Park, large park good for kayaking, canoeing and birding along Pellicer Creek.
- Driving on the beach in northeastern Florida is the ultimate scenic drive.
Updated Jan. 10, 2019