#23: Vessel use in the SEUS

Through reading our blog, it is evident we see a lot up in the sky; interactions between mothers and their calves, entangled whales, whales interacting with each other, and whales traveling alone. We also see all the vessels that utilize our survey area as well. Sometimes everything aligns just right (no pun intended) and we have the opportunity to save a right whale in real time.

The SEUS (Southeast United States) Right Whale Critical Habitat is highly utilized by many vessels and we (New England Aquarium) are part of a large conservation effort to alert all vessels of the location of right whales in near real time in an attempt to prevent vessel strikes.

Many types of commercial shipping vessels including car carriers, container ships, tugs, tug and barges, tankers and freighters bring goods in and out of the ports of Brunswick, Ga., Fernandina Beach, Fla., and Jacksonville, Fla. These vessels are safely guided into port by the local harbor pilots. The critical habitat is also utilized by two large naval bases. Mayport Naval Base located at the mouth of the St. Johns River in Mayport, Fla., and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St Marys, Ga. All these naval vessels use either the St. Marys or the St. Johns River Entrance (both in our survey area) to access the Atlantic Ocean. There are a number of Coast Guard stations within the SEUS critical habitat that include Brunswick, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., and Ponce Inlet, Fla., that all house a number of vessels which utilize the area for a multitude of purposes; including search and rescue and law enforcement. Some of the channels in the SEUS critical habitat are dredged each year by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers with large hopper dredges to keep the channels deep, clear, and safe for all vessels that utilize the channels. Additionally, there are many commercial and non-commercial fishing boats and numerous private recreational vessels.

Busy shipping lanes in critical North Atlantic Right Whale habitat

As you can see there are quite a number of vessels that use this area. When you overlap how right whales use this critical habitat with the number of vessels in the area, the chance of the two meeting can be quite high. There are many measures in place to reduce the chance of a vessel strike, including recommended routes into the channels, the newly instated ship strike rule (speed rule) and of course the Early Warning System (EWS) aerial surveys. The main reason why we fly these aerial surveys is to be the eyes in the sky to find whales so that we can help prevent vessel strikes, all other data collected is a bonus.

There are many times during the season, where we witness close calls between vessels and whales. Just Monday, we witnessed what could have been a close call if we hadn't been in the area. We sighted a group of two whales in a Social Active Group (SAG) and then another single whale within a mile of the first two. We were circling to get photo ID pictures and noticed a vessel heading on a steady southerly course that if continued would pass the whales at what we thought would be an uncomfortable distance. The vessel was about five nautical miles north of the whales, so we had plenty of time to contact the captain on the marine radio. The captain came back right away, we told him of the whales' location and he asked us to direct him away from them. He altered course away from the whales and we reminded him that there were more whales in the area and to keep an eye out for them. Its days like that, that make us feel really good about the work that we are doing up at 1000 feet.

Photo Caption:
Right whale breaching near a cargo ship by the St. John's River channel. Photo by Andy Garrett courtesy of Florida FWC.


1 comment:

  1. This is such an informative site. You and your team are truly angels in the sky. On behalf of all the whales, Thanks for being there.