Manatees may be the most lovable and panthers the rarest, but Florida's biggest endangered mammal may be one you didn't know about – the Northern Right Whale.

Right whales, which can grow to 70 tons and 55 feet long, are sighted every winter off the Atlantic coast between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of volunteers, plus visitors and residents of the northeastern coast, get the thrill of about 75 whale sightings between December and March each year.

Scientists estimate that there are only 490 right whales in existence, but thanks to a decade's work of volunteer whale watchers, that number is on the rise.

Frank Gromling, a volunteer and resident of Beverly Beach (just north of Flagler Beach) was the first volunteer in the first year of the Marineland Right Whale Project. That was 2001 and scientists then estimated there were 325 right whales.

"I get a thrill out of every single one I've seen, and I've probably seen 250 or more," Gromling said. "Every time I see one, it is like the first time. I consider it special – very special."

Right whales spend the summer off New England and Nova Scotia. In November, some of the females, a few adult males and assorted juveniles migrate south for the winter. By December, they're acting like tourists, lolling around the beaches off Florida's northern coast. The whales, however, are here on serious business: Some of the females are pregnant and it is in these waters that northern right whales give birth to calves and nurse them. In March, it's time to head north again.

About 100 to 150 whales make the visit to Florida shores each year, according to Joy Hampp, who has been project coordinator for the Marineland Right Whale Project for the past decade.

Why are they "right" whales? Because they were the right whales to hunt: Early whalers appreciated that their high blubber content made them float when dead. Whalers reduced the population to a few dozen by 1900.

Right whales can live 50 or 60 years and are slow to reproduce. Earlier, scientists determined the interval between calves to be five or six years. Now, perhaps a sign the species is healthier, the interval between calves for some females is down to three or three and a half years, Gromling said.

Calves are born at about 2,000 pounds and 15 feet long. They can't hold their breath long, so they and their mothers must spend more time at the surface while in Florida, Hampp said. Hence, the spectator opportunities.

You can tell a pilot whale by it's rounded head and hooked dorsal.

- Terry Gibson

How to go Whale Watching in Florida

Unless you live near the beach in northeastern Florida, consider yourself blessed if you experience even one right whale sighting, experts say. They don't happen every day.

There are no Florida whale watching excursions: The whales are too hard to predict and spot, plus scientists are concerned that boats getting close could cause stress to the mothers and calves.

Visitors do see whales, however.

Sally Wieczorek of Buffalo, who vacations in Flagler Beach each winter with her husband, has seen whales several times.

"One year, I heard there were whales and I ran up to the (Flagler Beach) pier to get a better look," she said. "The whale had a calf, and they were being led by a group of dolphins.  We could make out its markings, which was the mother and which the calf. It was really quite wonderful."

Several times, Wieczorek said, she has heard about a whale sighting or had seen a group of people pointing out to sea. Once, she was at the beach "and all of sudden, the whale was there."  That time, no one else spotted it. The whale wasn't close, "but you could tell it was a whale."

If you decide to go whale watching in Florida along the Atlantic Coast between Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville in the winter, you can improve your chances of spotting whales with this advice, according to Hampp.

Tips for Whale Watching in Florida

  • Keep binoculars handy, but you can scan the ocean without them from any high vantage point.
  • Whales are often in the company of dolphins, with sea birds overhead, so if you see either of those, take a closer look for whales.
  • The most likely way you'll spot a whale? First, you'll see a lot of cars and a clump of people on the shoreline pointing and looking at the sea with binoculars. Since Flagler Beach has six miles of beachfront visible along A1A, it's a likely place to come upon a whale sighting in progress.
  • You can identify right whales by these characteristics: They spout a V-shaped spray of water, they have no dorsal fin, they have whitish patches of raised and roughened skin (called callosities) on top of their heads, and their tails are black on both sides.
  • Humpback whales migrate through the same waters on their way to their Dominican Republic winter waters, but they move through earlier and later than right whales.

Gromling adds this advice:

  • February seems to be the best month for whale sightings, though whales are present and observed from December to March.
  • There are four fishing piers that make good whale-watching spots: The St. Augustine pier, the 800-foot-long pier in Flagler Beach, the Sunglow pier in Daytona Beach Shores and the Main Street pier in Daytona Beach.

Even if you don't get lucky and spot a right whale, the northeast coast of Florida offers excellent opportunities for observing wildlife.

Just ask Wieczorek: On her visits to Flagler Beach she has seen more dolphins than she can count, manatees, sharks, sting rays, alligators and loggerhead turtles.

"We always bring our binoculars with us," she said. "You never know what you'll see."

This mother pilot whale had a calf with her.

- Terry Gibson

About the Marineland Right Whale Project

With a patchwork of federal, state and private funding, the Marineland Right Whale Project coordinates volunteer teams with scientists in right whale conservation efforts. It is not associated with the Marineland oceanarium.

Last winter there were about 200 Right Whale Project volunteers organized into teams, each with specific lookout points. Several area communities also organized whale-monitoring teams.

Before and during the season, phone cards with right whale sighting information are distributed to residents, visitors, lifeguards and others who spend time at the beach. People are encouraged to phone the Right Whale Hotline – 1-888-97-WHALE – if they see a whale. Each sighting triggers a follow-up visit by a response team of  experienced individuals with cameras and GPS units who document whale movements and behavior. Teams track the whales as long as possible, sometimes for an entire day.

Since 2002, the project has used an AirCam, a twin-engine, slow-flight aircraft developed for National Geographic wildlife surveys, for both aerial surveys and sighting/photo responses.

Facts about right whales:

  • Right whales have been hunted for centuries for their  blubber and oil.
  • One of the major causes of death for right whales today is collisions with ships.
  • Right whales feed on large schools of zooplankton, and scientists do not believe they eat while in Florida, where this food source is not available in sufficient quantities, Gromling said.
  • The right whale is one of the slowest swimmers of all the whales, rarely going faster than five miles per hour. They are known to be quite active, however, as they breach, lobtail and tail-slap.
  • The whales have been protected from hunting since 1949.

For information about right whales, check out:

  • Marineland Right Whale Project blog and website
  • Northern Right Whale facts from NOAA
  • If you spot a whale in Florida, call the whale hotline: 1-888-97-WHALE
  • Frank Gromling has written a book about his experiences in the whale project called Frank's Whales.

Places to remember