There be rare whales here! And butt police for Sarasota?
A pair of right whales made an apparent wrong turn from their usual wintertime haunts offshore from Northeast Florida and made a lap of the Gulf of Mexico.
The mother and calf were spotted off Anna Maria Island early last week as they headed south toward the Florida Straits where, it is hoped, they will eventually end up at their more usual locale off the U.S. northeastern coast.
North Atlantic right whales are the most endangered of all the big-sized marine mammals, with their numbers estimated at about 350. The whales got their name because they were the "right" whales for whalers, being twice the average size as far as blubber and oil per pound was concerned, and having the commensurate fatal attraction of floating, rather than sinking, when harpooned.
Right whales, of course, were harvested to at least the brink of extinction.
Another problem with the species lies in its migratory pattern that includes moving slowly from the northern states south to a point off the Florida-Georgia border to give birth every winter. The trek takes them across most of the big seaports of the United States, where they tend to either get run over by ships or entangled by fishing lines.
The mother and calf that slipped into the Gulf were first sighted off Corpus Christi, Texas, in January, according to Tampa Tribune accounts. U.S. Coast Guard crews saw them last week off the Island, and followed them down to Venice before the pair were lost from sight.
Prop marks on the calf's back gave officials the heads-up that the pair were the same as seen off Texas. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials also got into the act and backed up the sightings.
In traditionally dry fashion, NOAA officials said, "Although rare, North Atlantic right whales have previously been reported in the Gulf of Mexico a few times."
Confirmed sightings were made off Panama City Beach in 2004; prior to that was in March 1963 off Longboat Key.
Wouldn't it be nice to think that momma made a Gulf loop 40 years ago and took a child through the same waters last week? Whale lifespan could back that claim up, by the way.
According to NOAA, "The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered large whale off American coasts. After a period of intense whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the species was nearly extinct. Although whaling practices have ceased in the States, right whales face serious risks from ship collisions and entanglements in fishing gear and marine debris.
"Right whales and all other species of marine mammals are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. It is illegal to approach or remain within 500 yards of right whales. Mariners are urged to use extreme caution, maintain a sharp lookout, and take prompt action to avoid colliding or approaching this pair of critically endangered whales."
The Gulf, by the way, isn't any sort of a stranger to whales. Despite the "Moby Dick" thoughts of all whales only being found off New England or in the Pacific off California, there were historically a slew of sperm and humpback whales in residence in our waters before whalers took out the population.
Today, those species have made a significant comeback in the deep Gulf waters.
And on another whale front, it seems that sperm whales have figured out where to get a good munch at human fishers' expense.
Fishers for sablefish are having problems with whales taking the catch off their longlines. The marine mammals are alerted to the fishing activity by the start-stop the fishers use to set the lines in the Gulf of Alaska, swim up and take out the fish.
Remember foraging at a buffet table, snacking on tidbits of food on toothpicks? That's what the sperm whales are doing.
What hurts the fisher folks is that the sablefish - butterfish or black cod are also what they're called - are a big-time delicacy in the Orient and Hawaii, bring big-time prices if the harvest stays on the line and comes into the hold.
The sperm whales, of which there are something like 90 in the Gulf of Alaska, use their sonar to find the funky sounds the fishing boats make, then zero in on the longlines and fish.
Call it revenge of the whales on fishers.
Another ecological disaster from hurricanes to Florida
Although loss of life and damage to property have been huge thanks to back-to-back hurricane "hell years" in Florida, the longterm damage to the environment is another cause for alarm in a longer scheme of things.
As both the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times pointed out last week, here's what's happening:
Storm blows through. Native trees begone. Native understory in the wilderness begone. We're talking wrath of God-type clearing, bare earth, all the rest.
Storm blows in bits of non-native plants like Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, punk trees. These guys love that open space, and start to grow like crazy. With nothing to hinder the exotic plant growth, since there's no natural enemy, the "other" guys take over, create monocultures where native plants can't exist, smother other critters, and make a mess of the natural Florida wildlife and culture.
Or, storm blows in. Lots of rain, lots of water, lots of stormwater buildup in the lakes and ponds, especially Lake Okeechobee, the state's biggest internal water body at 730 square miles.
But the lake isn't all that deep, at an average of 9 feet, and with 3 feet of ooze at the bottom, it's ripe for the churning that the extra water can provide.
Water managers decide to solve the problem and open the floodgates, literally, to let out the excess water before it floods homes, fields and crops. The resultant mudslide-sludge flows into the tributaries that feed the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay.
And stuff starts to die, like fish, birds and other marine life.
Even humans have been infected with staph infections from swimming in the water.
Mother Nature is pretty good about cleaning up after herself. She can handle lots of damage. The problem is back-to-back damage, like we've had with all these storms, without any time for healing.
Mom Nature can work some pretty terrific miracles, but not immediately. It does take time, and time is the thing that Florida hasn't been afforded in the last two years of storms.
Solutions? Obviously, no more hurricanes would be a good thing. Less rain means less frenetic action by water managers to drain the lake to afford property owners some flood protection, and the resulting runoff lessening to the coastal waters.
Time would also allow foresters a chance to get into the hinterlands to start whacking the invasive peppers and pines before they get so big that their removal, or at least control, becomes nearly impossible.
So time is what we need to cure what has been referred to as a "wounded" Sunshine State.
Do we have it? Do we have a respite from high hurricane activity in the next few years?
Jeez, let's hope so, but somehow I'm not all that optimistic.
Those wacky folks in Sarasota County are at it again: Talking about prohibiting smoking at the public beaches has puffed its way into visibility one more time.
The Sarasota County Commission wafted the proposal two years ago to ban smoking on the beach, but was re-puffed by citizen outcry. The matter has resurfaced again, with the focus on popular Siesta Public Beach.
Litter is the moving force behind the proposed ban, with all those butts left on the beach a stark rationale for prohibiting cigarette smoking on the sand.
California has enacted a similar butt-ban. If it passes, Sarasota would be the first Florida county to enact such an anti-cig law.
Of course, there is that pesky issue of enforcement.
Remember that alcohol isn't permitted on Manatee County's beaches? Remember the last time you went to the beach? Remember the beer cans you saw?
Good luck, Sarasota.