Southeast Right Whale Research Log

March 26, 1998
Fernandina Beach, FL

"Winds picking up from the northwest, 15 to 25 miles per hour. Chance of rain 60% in the afternoon."

This is the first news we hear in the morning, coming down to the office to brew some coffee. Actually our office is a living room--Chris has fashioned a desk from an old wooden door and some 48-gallon coolers. The glass coffee table serves as our light box--we look at slides through its surface. And the television, with muted sound, is permanently tuned to the same station.

We watch the Weather Channel, hoping for that respite in the wind and rain, when we can get out and work some whales. But this year, the weather has no intention of cooperating with our plans. El Nino has brought us a fisherman's luck: "Wet stern and no fish."

Tornadoes are still ripping through the Southeast, and many of the local rivers have reached record highs--roads are closed and bridges washed away--with flood levels passed weeks ago. As the season has progressed, even the calm weather brings empty seas, at least for those of us looking for whales. The loggerheads and the rays are more prevalent, but the expert eyes in the survey pane have failed to sight a right whale in the past four weeks. Most of the whales are gone, heading up to their spring feeding grounds off Cape Cod.

So what do we do with all this down time? Mike Williamson, the principal investigator of WhaleNet, asked if we had taken up arts and crafts or knitting. Not exactly, though the data is certainly in impeccable shape and the slides of our work have been arranged and rearranged, as we wait for a call from the survey plane to report some whales. Every call on the beeper has us eagerly anticipating a sighting. None arrive.

I've certainly had a chance to walk the beach a few dozen times, with half an eye out for a V-shaped blow on the horizon. I see plenty of black skimmers skirting the surf and pass royal terns and willets patrolling the shoreline. One day I find a two-inch shark's tooth along the sea's edge--dating back millions of years, before there were whales off these waters.

And that's how the ocean appears now--empty. Fortunately, the first reports have filtered down from Massachusetts. The whales haven't disappeared; they've just moved on. Dozens of whales have been sighted feeding in the waters off Cape Cod. For some researchers at least, there are plenty of whales to be seen. For those left in Fernandina, we either pack our bags and follow them north or keep our eyes on the horizon, waiting for next year.

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