Right whale sightings increase locally

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The northern right whales have returned, and sightings have been reported this month in the waters off Ponte Vedra Beach.

The annual arrival of these endangered sea mammals is cause for celebration among local residents, many of whom flock to the coast when learning where and when a sighting has been made.

Generally, there are about 75 sightings between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral each year in December through March. That’s because between 100 and 150 whales migrate south for the winter, having summered in the shores off New England and Nova Scotia.

Northern right whales give birth to, and nurse, their calves in the Atlantic waters of northern Florida, which improves the chances of sightings in this area.

People seeing a whale are encouraged to call the Marine Resources Council hotline at 888-979-4253 and report it. Experienced response teams are then deployed with cameras and GPS units to track the whales.

As of Monday, Feb. 15, there have been 66 officially verified sightings off the coast of St. Johns County since the beginning of December. Twenty-three of those sightings were very close to shore.

Below are officially recognized sightings. Some whales may appear in multiple sightings.

Dec. 6

Two sightings of a mother with calf: St. Augustine Inlet and just offshore at South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Dec. 18

Two sightings of a mother and calf: both just offshore at South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 3

Four whales off South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 5

Mother with calf off South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 8

Mother and calf just offshore at South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 11

Six sightings of a mother and calf: three off South Ponte Vedra Beach, one off Mickler’s Landing, one off Ponte Vedra Beach, one just offshore at Summer Haven.

Jan. 12

Two sightings of a mother and calf: just offshore at the Matanzas Inlet.

Jan. 17

Three sightings of a mother and calf: one just offshore near the Matanzas Inlet, one east of St. Augustine Beach, one off Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 19

Mother and calf just offshore at South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 20

Three sightings of a mother and calf: one southeast of St. Augustine Beach, two just offshore at South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Jan. 21

Two sightings of a mother and calf: one off Anastasia State Park, one at the St. Augustine Inlet.

Jan. 22

Mother and calf off St. Augustine Beach.

Jan. 24

Two sightings of mother and calf off South Ponte Vedra Beach

Jan. 25

Mother and calf off South Ponte Vedra Beach

Jan. 29

Mother and calf just offshore at Ponte Vedra Beach

Jan. 30

Two sightings of a mother and calf: one off Ponte Vedra Beach and one off Matanzas Inlet

Jan. 31

Mother and calf off Crescent Beach

Feb. 1

Mother and calf off South Ponte Vedra Beach

Feb. 3

Three sightings of mother and calf: Two east of the St. Augustine Inlet and one east of South Ponte Vedra Beach.

Feb. 5

One whale just offshore at Ponte Vedra Beach.

Feb. 7

Mother and calf just offshore at South Ponte Vedra

Feb. 11

Mother and calf just offshore at Ponte Vedra Beach

Four whales east of Crescent Beach

Four whales east of Anastasia State Park

Feb. 12

Seven sightings of mother and calf: two off Vilano Beach, two just offshore at Ponte Vedra Beach, three east of South Ponte Vedra.

Right whales can grow to 45-55 feet in length and 70 tons in weight. When calves are born, they weigh about 2,000 pounds and are 15-16 feet long.

The total population of the northern right whale is between 400 and 500. About a dozen calves are born annually.

Right whales get their name from early whalers, who called them the “right” whales to hunt due to their high level of fat. Overhunting impacted the species, reducing the total population to a few dozen by the end of the 19th century.

Right whales were declared a protected species, and hunting them has been forbidden since 1949.

But human activity continues to threaten the whales, which get entangled in fishing gear, are hit by vessels and are harassed by people.

Local residents had an unfortunate reminder of these dangers Saturday, Feb. 13, when a dead calf washed ashore at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine Beach. The calf showed signs of propeller injuries.

Readers who want to do some whale watching should take along a pair of binoculars. One way to locate a possible whale is by watching other animals. Sea birds often flock overhead of the whales, and they can often be found in the company of dolphins.

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