Byline: STEVE PATTERSON
Late next month, a festival crowd will cluster at Jacksonville Beach to celebrate the right whales headed to the area.
For months after that, volunteer whale-watchers will stare through binoculars from shore, scanning the ocean for glimpses of the endangered mammals wintering offshore.
But boaters sharing the coastline with them may not realize they're around whales until a jolting crash shudders through their craft.
"It's a very nice day when they're out on the water. ... And the next thing you know, they've hit something hard," said Barb Zoodsma, a right whale specialist based in Fernandina Beach who has talked to boaters after they collided with whales.
To understand more about how offshore anglers and whales cross paths, researchers at the University of Florida are starting a two-year project to study where and when boaters travel along Northeast Florida's coast.
Survey forms will likely be sent to thousands of boat owners who traveled offshore from inlets between the St. Marys River and St. Augustine, said Bob Swett, who coordinates the boating and waterway management program at the Florida Sea Grant office in Gainesville.
The coasts of northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are the only known place where North Atlantic right whales give birth and nurture their newborns, between November and April. There are fewer than 400 in existence.
Federal agencies set seasonal speed limits for large commercial vessels and require other precautions in some areas with heavy right whale travel.
There are fewer rules for smaller boats and little hard data about their interaction with whales.
Near the mouth of the St. Johns River and other high-traffic areas, observers in planes have described seeing clusters of boats hurrying toward shore as nightfall or a storm approaches while a mother whale and calf linger in their path, said Zoodsma, who coordinates federal right whale recovery projects in the Southeast. …