Southeast Right Whale Research Log

January 22, 1998
R/V Jupiter

Grabbing the darting and camera equipment, Chris and I race out the door, hook the boat to the truck, and take off. The Coast Guard has reported a right whale mother and calf just outside the Saint Johns River channel. There's a storm front moving in, with rain and dark clouds all around. But no one's seen a whale in more than a week, and there's no telling who this pair might be. Despite the threatening weather, we decide to give it our best shot.

After we squeeze onto the Mayport ferry, Chris turns the handheld radio on. There's a broken call from Laura Morse in the EWS survey plane: "We don't have much time. We have to take pictures of these whales before they go down. The mom's not being very cooperative." She calls out the coordinates. And by the time I've written it down, we're on the way to the boat launch.

Heading downriver, we speed past the naval base. An aircraft carrier, destroyers, cruisers, and missile frigates tower over us to starboard. Just beyond the base is a more ominous sight--the mouth of the Saint Johns, well over a mile wide at some places, funnels through a narrow pair of rock jetties barely a thousand feet apart. There's a wild current flowing through this bottleneck, where river meets sea. Even standing up, Chris can't see a thing over the wall of slate blue water. The bow of our boat keeps rearing up over the crest of six-foot swells, sometimes hovering aloft in the wind. With the two of us and all the equipment, there's just too much weight in the stern. Chris asks, "So, Joe, what do you think about holding the bowline?"

I can just about buckle my life preserver; standing on the bow is not that appealing. "No, Chris, I don't really feel comfortable with that idea."

But there's not much choice if we don't want to flip the boat, so Chris eventually coaxes me up to the front, with the bowline tied around my waist. It's like skiing over high, unpredictable moguls, with the sea in charge of your speed.

"Kind of makes you feel nautical, doesn't it?" says Chris. Actually, I feel more landlubbing than ever. Even if a mermaid started calling from the jetty rocks, I wouldn't make a move, feet squarely set and hands clenched around the line.

Laura calls back from the plane. "We got a few photos, but the mother's not being very cooperative, Chris. She's staying down a lot. We're going to continue with the survey." She reports their last coordinates, and we're on our own.

As we edge beyond the channel, the sea calms down--a bit. But still, it's hard to pick out an uncooperative whale, especially when the horizon keeps slipping behind the waves. On lookout, we cruise the area where the plane last spotted the whales. Every once in a while, we see something that looks like a blow. But it never shows up again, and in these seas it's hard to estimate distances. Apparently this whale is not going to help us out today.

After an hour and a half of empty, restless seas, we decide to call it a day, and brace ourselves for another ride through the jaws of the Saint Johns.

Joe Roman
New England Aquarium

Go to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 30 Jan. 1998

Go back to Southeast Right Whale Research Log 12 Jan. 1998