Winter's first endangered right whales popped up off St. Augustine last week, raising hopes they might soon reach the Space Coast.
As the three whales and more make their yearly migration from Canada, conservationists want the federal government to expand areas considered the whale's "critical" habitat, last designated in 1994. Those areas extend from Maine to Sebastian.
And whale spotters in Brevard are keeping their eyes open for calves -- to add to the mere 400 or so right whales that remain.
"Nobody has seen any moms yet," said Julie Albert, who runs a volunteer right whale monitoring network for the nonprofit Marine Resources Council in Palm Bay.
Hunters once sought the whale for its rich oil content, dubbing it the "right" whale to hunt. They swam slow, close to shore and floated when killed. They grow to 60 feet and 100 tons.
The whale's biggest threats today include collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear, prompting calls to expand its critical habitat areas.
Five environmental groups filed a petition in September asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to widen those areas. It would about double the width of the area that extends from the shore off Brevard, and widen it even more north of Florida.
The government is expected to respond to the petition by the end of this year.
The groups want the critical habitat area enlarged because information in the last several years shows right whales use more habitat than previously thought, said Vicki Cornish, director of marine wildlife policy for the Ocean Conservancy.
Designating more critical habitat would force projects to minimize effects on the whale during port expansions, dredging, sonar activity, offshore alternative energy and other activities within its habitat, she said.
"It's basically habitat that's essential for the recovery and survival of an endangered or threatened species," Cornish said. "It's not going to impact anything that's done by individuals."
Federal law requires people keep at least 500 yards from the endangered species.
The Marine Resources Council, based in Palm Bay, keeps watch off the coast for whales each winter and spring.
Since 1994, hundreds have reported whale sightings that warn harbor pilots and captains to beware, especially in waters near Port Canaveral. The ships and whales share the same travel routes.
The council also keeps an eye on the critical habitat petition.
"We're waiting to see what they're going to do," Albert said. "The population as low as it is, every protection measure needs to be taken."
Beyond collisions, another primary concern is sonar.
Whale advocates worry about a proposed 500-sqaure mile undersea naval warfare training range off Jacksonville, planned for construction in 2014. The Navy would use the area for anti-submarine warfare training that includes use of sonar and several vessels at a time.
Whale advocates also wonder about global warming impacts on right whales.
By 2050, sound will travel about 70 percent farther because of increased carbon dioxide dissolving into the ocean, according to research by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
As more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean, the increasingly acidic seawater absorbs less low- and mid-frequency sound.
The change might improve whales' ability to find mates and food, but also increase harmful sound from sonar and background noise from industrial activities.
"The noisier the oceans are, the harder it is for these animals to find each other, to find food," Cornish said.
About right whales
During its yearly migration, the right whale crosses heavily trafficked shipping lanes, where it is at risk of collisions. Marine Resources Council volunteers report sightings to warn ship captains of whales in the area.
Julie Albert, coordinator of MRC's Northern Right Whale Monitoring program, will conduct classes for new volunteers:
# 6-7:30 p.m. Jan. 4, Cape Canaveral Library, 201 Polk Ave. Call 868-1101.
# 10:30 a.m.-noon Jan. 9, Melbourne Beach Library, 324 Ocean Ave. Call 956-5642.
# 3-4:30 p.m. Jan. 9, Satellite Beach Library, 751 Jamaica Blvd. Call 779-4004.
# 7-8 p.m. Jan. 13, Great Outdoors, 125 Plantation Drive, Titusville. Call 269-5004.
# Noon-1 p.m. Jan. 26, Lagoon House, 3275 Dixie Highway N.E., Palm Bay. Call 725-7775.
Jim Waymer, Florida Today