By Lauri deGaris
Last January, many Amelia Island residents, and visitors too, were thrilled to watch a whale from the beach for several weeks. On January 7, 2023, a whale was reported in the St. Marys River inlet. I remember the day this happened very well.
I was sitting in my favorite chair reading a book while monitoring the VHF radio. A report came over the airwaves stating a juvenile whale was swimming in the St. Marys River inlet just east of Ft. Clinch. I grabbed my whale-watching gear and flew out the door.
As I approached the beach at Ft. Clinch, I saw the aerial surveillance team circling over the south jetties about a half mile from the beach. I could see the whale swimming very close to the rocks through my binoculars. On the radio, I heard the aerial observation crew communicating with several Coast Guard vessels and NOAA whale research vessels. They were staged in the inlet giving the whale plenty of space and protection.
On the whale’s north side was the St. Marys River inlet. On the whale’s south side were the jetty rocks. The whale was having a difficult time deciding which way to go. To complicate matters even more, on the south side of the jetties were about 40 dolphins heading toward the jetty rocks. I watched them approach and begin to circle in a group as close to the jetty rocks as they could. The whale was just feet away from them on the other side of the rocks. This went on for about 10 minutes. Radio reports from NOAA stated the whale was in distress.
Finally, the whale took a leap of faith and jumped over the south jetty rocks and joined the company of dolphins. Then, the entire pod, including the whale, starting swimming south along the beach.
I headed back to my car and went straight to Main Beach. The whale and the dolphins were just arriving as I arrived. Many beachgoers got a good look at the group that afternoon. They drifted south along the shoreline of the island. The last time I saw them that day, we were at American Beach as the sun was setting. All I can say is WOW what a magical day we had watching whales along the shore of Amelia Island.
As it turns out, this was a juvenile humpback whale. Curiosity brought the whale into the St. Marys River channel, and he got a bit distressed while seeking his way back to sea. Dolphins in the area heard the whale’s distress calls and came to assist. Sailboat charter Captain Bud Brasier caught some amazing photographs of this event.
I contacted Quincy Anne Gibson, Ph.D. Associate Professor, University of North Florida. Dr. Gibson is also the Director of the Dolphin Research Program at UNF. She has previously studied humpback whales in Hawaii and Australia. Dr. Gibson told me it’s not unusual to see them interacting with bottlenose dolphins. Juvenile whales and dolphins can be especially curious and are more likely than adults to seek out inter-species interactions. It is unusual for humpback whales to be so close to our shores here, though.
Humpback whales filter-feed on small crustaceans (mostly krill) and small fish. They use several techniques to help them herd, corral, and disorient prey and that can include using bubbles, sounds, the seafloor, and even their pectoral fins. Locally, this humpback whale found plenty of shrimp, which are crustaceans similar to krill.
For the next two weeks, I followed the dolphins and whale up and down the beaches of North Florida. I was not alone. Many people reported seeing the whale from the beach. The whale was observed tail slapping, breaching, rolling over in the waves, feeding and basking in the sun, always with the dolphins close by. They traveled from the St. Marys River inlet to the St. Johns River inlet many times. They were spotted feeding along the beaches of Little Talbot and at Huguenot Park, too.
It got to the point where I could tell from day to day where to find the group. Eventually, I named the whale Magic. It seemed like an appropriate name given the fact this whale provided so many with magical beach moments.
On March 6, 2023, Magic the humpback whale was spotted along Ponte Vedra Beach, south of the St. Johns River. That was the last report I received about this wonderful winter whale visitor. My beach whale-watching persistence paid off. And, I had a great time chasing Magic the whale up and down the beach. Don’t give up looking for whales. One never knows when magic may appear again.