PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A once-in-a-lifetime encounter with rare whales just off the coast of St. Johns County comes with a stern warning.
A good Samaritan on Ponte Vedra Beach told News4JAX that he tried to get a rope off an endangered North Atlantic right whale with her calf by her side.
However, that interaction is now under investigation by regulators with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bobby Stockton said he was on the beach in front of the Lodge & Club in Ponte Vedra Beach on Friday when he saw a massive marine mammal, which appeared to be in distress.
He and a friend took a kayak out and realized it was a mother whale and her calf.
The mother had a rope running through her mouth and down both of her sides.
“We are going to try to cut some of this line if we can,” Stockton said from the front of a kayak as his friend steered and recorded video on a GoPro.
In the video, the whale is still on the surface, blowing air from time to time.
“The calf ended up swimming a piece of rope over to us,” Stockton told News4JAX. “It was the coolest thing ever. It was asking for help seemingly. So the calf lifted it up on its nose, showing a piece of rope.”
Stockton said he was careful to not get too close and waited for the rope to come his way.
“Long story short, it drifted over to us, I got a chunk of it and started cutting it off. I was able to give it a little haircut and help the whale out a little bit,” he said.
Around the same time, News4JAX reported the whales were possibly in distress to FWC officials after getting a tip from Morgan Christiansen, who was flying in a small plane above the beach. Researchers were en route to assess the situation.
Marine biologists with NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission interviewed Stockton after the encounter. They said that while his intentions appeared to be good, interacting with endangered whales is against the law.
They said the mother whale is named Snow Cone. They first spotted the North Atlantic right whale tangled up in several ropes off the coast of Cape Cod in March. Teams were able to get some of the rope off the whale, but not all of it. She’s been heading south for the winter with her calf, and while the rope isn’t ideal, experts said the marine mammals are in good shape.
“It is essential that right whale moms and calves are given space to bond - 500 yards (or 5 football fields) is the minimum distance people can approach North Atlantic right whales under the law,” said Allison Garrett, a NOAA Fisheries Southeast spokeswoman. “The best way you can help is by calling to report what you are seeing and taking photos/video from a safe distance.”
Garrett said she couldn’t comment further because the incident was still under investigation.
North Atlantic right whales are rare, with fewer than 400 still in existence in the world. NOAA researchers said only about 100 are females able to breed.
A spokesperson for FWC told News4JAX that so far this calving season, the agency has counted six mother-calf pairs in Northeast Florida region waters, including Snow Cone and her calf.
“We have been monitoring her (Snow Cone) and the calf and both are currently in good shape. This is a special bonding time between a mother and a calf and to remove or further shorten the rope would be too dangerous with a newborn calf present,” FWC Officer Chad Weber said. “Right whale calves swim very close to their moms, making a safe approach by responders highly problematic if not impossible.”
Stockton said point taken, noting as an animal lover, his intentions were pure. He said that the whales swam away after he shortened the rope and that he cooperated with investigators and gave them what he retrieved.
“It’s not something I’m going to do again,” said Stockton, who wanted to educate people about the rules, which he didn’t know about before the encounter.
He’s using this as a learning experience to teach others to stay away and let wildlife be wild.
RESOURCE: Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines
To report a stranded marine mammal in the Southeast United States, NOAA asks that you call the marine mammal stranding 24-hour hotline at 1-877-WHALE HELP (1-877-942-5343).