Up Close and Personal: A Rush to Watch Whales Near Shore

By Lauri deGaris

In my mind, few things are more exciting than receiving news about whales close enough to see from the beach. Early on Jan. 20, 2024, I received a call from the Marineland Right Whale Project coordinator, Dr. Sara Ellis, in St. Augustine Beach. She said a jogger had spotted two whales near American Beach and called the Whale Sighting Hotline (1-877-942-5343) to report the observation. Dr. Ellis asked if I could verify the sighting. I threw off my pajamas, dressed as fast as possible, and flew out the door.

Whale watchers at Burney Park.

Twenty minutes later, I was watching a right whale mom and calf pair bonding in the shallow surf at American Beach. At this point, the pair were very close to shore. Three surf fishermen watching the whales with me jokingly said they reeled in their fishing gear so as not to catch a whale accidentally. The whales were that close to shore. I could plainly see them without binoculars. After witnessing the right whale’s unique “blow,” which is in the shape of the letter “V,” I called Dr. Ellis and verified the sighting.

Next, I notified the Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors. Before I knew it, a herd of whale watchers with binoculars and spotting scopes were at Burney Park, watching mom and calf roll around in the shallow surf close to shore. The pair remained within binocular view from shore for about two hours.

Soon, NOAA right whale scientists were on the beach launching their drone to observe mom and calf pair safely. They identified the pair as Halo and her calf, originally sighted on Dec. 28, 2023, six miles east of Cumberland Island.

Drone launch from Burney Park.

Halo is 19, and her calf is approximately three weeks old. This is Halo’s third calf. Dr. Ellis told me that the Marineland Right Whale Project named Halo. The callosities behind Halo’s blowhole resemble a halo. And, Halo must have a halo hanging over her head after she and her calf survived unharmed crossing the busy Cape Canaveral shipping lanes eight times in 2020. The Cape Canaveral Pilots Association remained on high alert the entire time Halo and her calf were swimming in the shipping lanes. Indeed, a halo was above Halo’s head, watching over her and her calf that season.

The whale’s tail. (Photo by Pam Bell)

Whale watchers arrived at American Beach from all over North Florida, eager to glimpse Halo and her calf. No one went home disappointed. Everyone who showed up could observe the pair floating aimlessly on the ocean surface. Each time a whale tail emerged, or a fin broke the water’s surface, there was a collective “OOOOHHHHHHH” from the crowd.

Local photographer Pam Bell arrived on the scene with camera and took amazing photographs of Halo and her calf. We are forever grateful for Pam’s quick response to the scene. With camera in hand, Pam captured many magical moments of Halo and calf to share.

If you would like to be notified next time whales are observed from Amelia Island beaches, please contact Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors for details here or email Candis Whitney at [email protected].

Halo and her calf as seen from American Beach. (Photo by Pam Bell)

Right whale calving season ends in April, providing us with many more opportunities for whales to appear in the surf close to the beach. I know that when the next call comes in saying a whale is swimming close to shore, I will drop everything I am doing and fly out the door once again. I do not want to miss any chance of watching these highly endangered relations swim just under the waves along the beach of Amelia Island.

Boaters are urged to post a lookout, use caution, and give whales a wide berth. Please report vessel collisions and dead or injured right whale sightings to 1-877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or to the USCG on marine VHF Ch. 16 as quickly as possible.

How to help:

  • Report right whale sightings to 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343).
  • While boating, stay alert, slow down, and give whales plenty of space.
  • Stay up to date on conservation measures and participate in public meetings.
  • Share what you’ve learned with friends, especially those who boat in coastal Atlantic waters during winter.
Lauri deGaris is a native north Floridian, marine scientist, and historian. She has resided on Amelia Island for the past 35 years.