Volunteers scan the ocean for North Atlantic right whales

By Jason Wheeler, Flagler County Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, January 07, 2015, 4:36 PM EST

This time of year brings dozens of people armed with binoculars to the coasts of Flagler, Volusia and Brevard counties.

What's their mission? Spot a North Atlantic right whale wintering in the area waters during calving season, which is officially underway.

It's no easy task, though.

Joy Hampp, project coordinator for the Marineland Right Whale Project, said they whale watchers are looking at about 4,000 square miles to look for 50 to 100 right whales.

"That's a lot of area," Hampp said. "It's the proverbial needle in a haystack."

Patti Malecki, Susi Kling and Judie Sleboda have been whale watching for a combined 19 years. Conditions for their four-hour Wednesday shift are far from ideal. But they're used to it.

"The beginning of the season — it's kind of always like this," Malecki said. "By the end of our 10 weeks, we may be here in shorts and flip-flops."

The Flagler and Volusia coasts are a near-perfect location to spot mother whales and their new calves since they often come within a few hundred yards of the beach.

The first local whale was spotted Sunday, and a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission team captured a picture of her off the coast of Daytona Beach Shores.

She was also one of the first to be spotted last year in the waters off Marineland, in northern Flagler County.

Early whalers called this species the "right whale to kill" since it was slow, lived near the coast, stayed afloat when killed and had high amounts of oil and blubber.

They were nearly hunted to extinction.

Long-time volunteers think their tireless work is making a difference along the coast.

"When I started watching, I believe there were 375 known," Malecki said. "So now, there's just over 500, so I think we're doing a good thing."

If you're along the coast and see a right whale, call 888-97-WHALE (979-4253) so a team can try to identify it.

The calving season lasts from December to March in the waters stretching from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral.