Wildlife officials say the North Atlantic right whale calving season is getting off to a slow start in northeast Florida.
Officials with the Marineland Right Whale Project and the Marine Resources Council say there are fewer sightings and fewer calves in the waters off Volusia and Flagler counties. Volunteers and staff from these agencies watch for female whales traveling to the area to give birth each winter.
So far the water temperatures have been "warmer than that the whales prefer," Julie Albert, coordinator of the right whale hot line for resources council, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
The newspaper reports that Marineland staff first spotted right whales off the coast this season and biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed there were three whales off shore. All three were documented in previous years by the Marineland aerial survey team.
There have been only 34 whales have been photo-identified off the southeastern U.S. coastline, according to Tom Pitchford of the wildlife agency.
Only three calves have been spotted by aerial survey crews that help track the whales as they move south.
"That's a little low for this time in the season, said research scientist Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium.
But Albert said the number could still increase. "It's still toward the beginning of the season."
Even so, Knowlton said the low number follows a summer with the fewest sightings in the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia. She said a few whales were seen farther south than usual, in the mid-Atlantic, including some that were entangled in fishing gear in July and August.
"They just weren't in their typical Canadian feeding habits this summer. It was just a mystery," Knowlton said.
In related news, researchers and advocates are thrilled with news that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service is extending its speed rules for large ships in shipping lanes along parts of the migratory whales' paths. The rules have been in place on a temporary basis since 2008.
"That's really good news," Knowlton said. "The data is very clear that the ship speed rules made a difference. We've seen no ship speed strikes within those managed areas."