New Challenges In 2018 For Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

New Challenges In 2018 For Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

By Lisa D. Mickey

The Marine Discovery Center hosts a lecture on North Atlantic Right Whales early each year to help citizens identify the large mammals sometimes spotted just offshore.

The presentation also encourages individuals to engage in a volunteer contact system designed to alert officials whenever these endangered animals are in the area.

Sadly, the challenges increased for the right whale in 2017, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported an “unusual mortality event (UME).” The UME detailed that 17 right whales were found dead off the coasts of New England and Canada last year, plunging the current global population of these whales to 450 animals.

Further, officials from NOAA warned in early December that the species of whale — which can weigh up to 150,000 pounds and grow as long as 48 feet (nearly 15 meters) — could be extinct within 20 years if critical action is not taken to protect them. Scientists estimate there currently are only 100 breeding females in existence.

One report noted that warmer water temperatures in Halifax, Canada, had lured some of the whales into atypical foraging areas that were also shipping channels. Of the 17 whales that were found dead in 2017, six were reportedly killed by blunt-force trauma – likely from collisions with vessels, said NOAA.

NOAA has already begun work with commercial fisheries from Canada and the United States, requesting improved communication to help avoid whale/ship encounters, as well as to help minimize entanglements. Five right whales were freed from fishing nets in 2017, with two dying following entanglement.

Precautionary measures with North American fisheries intensified in 2009. According to a NOAA report, fisheries were required to sink 27,000 miles of floating lines deep into oceanic waters, and more than 3,000 more miles of fishing line was removed from North American waters in 2014.

And while NOAA, along with various other national and state agencies, work to improve management of commercial fishing practices and methods to make waters safer for right whales, the addition of volunteer spotters has also benefitted the effort. Volunteer spotters living in coastal regions help report whale sightings to officials, who can alter shipping and commercial fishing routes, thereby preventing whale strikes.

Julie Albert, manager of the Marine Resources Council’s North Atlantic Right Whale Monitoring Program, currently leads more than 800 volunteers along the east coast of Florida. Albert will once again lead the discussion on right whales during MDC’s free monthly lecture on Thursday, Jan. 18.

The free lecture will begin at 6 p.m., at MDC, located at 520 Barracuda Boulevard in New Smyrna Beach.

The public is invited to come learn more about these endangered creatures, as well as what can be done by local citizens to help protect them when they show up off our shorelines this winter.


Sea Turtles Abundant During 2017 Nesting Season

Sea Turtles Abundant During 2017 Nesting Season

By Lisa D. Mickey

sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle emergence: the turtles emerge in a group and proceed to crawl down the beach to the water

Turtle-tracking volunteers and Canaveral National Seashore staff were busy during the 2017 nesting season with record-setting numbers of turtles finding the beaches of Volusia County.

Volusia County’s beaches experienced its second-highest nesting season since 1988 (when records were first kept) with 720 nests in 2017. Of the documented nests this year on Volusia County beaches, 634 nests were loggerhead sea turtles, while 82 were green sea turtles and four nests were the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles – uncommon for this region.

Those numbers shattered records for both greens and Kemp Ridley turtles, and was the third-highest number on record for loggerhead nests on Volusia County beaches.

In Canaveral National Seashore, which spans both Apollo Beach (Volusia County) and Playalinda Beach (Brevard County), a total of 12,315 nests were recorded.

In Apollo beach, there were 1,791 loggerhead nests, 2,192 green turtle nests and seven leatherback sea turtle nests.

In Playalinda, rangers recorded 2,765 nests for loggerheads, 5,544 nests for green turtles and 16 leatherback nests. No Kemps Ridley nests were recorded on either beach in Canaveral National Seashore.

Some of the nests were damaged or lost with the arrival of Hurricane Irma this fall in both the national park and on Volusia County beaches. In Volusia County, 262 nests could not be fully evaluated because: nests could not be located (30); nests were depredated or scavenged (37); tidally inundated (42); or washed away by the sea (153).

And while nesting season in Volusia County is typically in full swing from May 1 through October 31, nesting is not always exact – as there were still 15 nests incubating on the beach after Oct. 31.

As the 2017 numbers indicate, sea turtle conservation on the shorelines of Volusia County was viable and productive, once again.

Save Your Applause For The Scientists

Save Your Applause For The Scientists

Wendy Noke of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute assists a dolphin calf

By Lisa D. Mickey

I admit it. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to admiring top sports teams and appreciating the skills of world-ranked athletes.

I love seeing them work together as a team to win championships or close games. And I enjoy watching individual professional athletes perform extraordinary feats.

Certainly, as a sportswriter for more than 20 years, I have seen my fair share of record-breaking performances, met some exceptional athletes and seen history made in athletics that will forever be on instant replay in my mind.

But in recent years, I’ve met some new superstars who work in virtual anonymity and deserve far more attention than any of them would ever want. Their names are not well known and they don’t reap lucrative benefits for the long hours of plying their craft even though they are among the world’s best. There’s no confetti, headlines or applause from thousands of adoring fans for these people.

In fact, most of the time when they perform their best work, they are alone, dirty, bloody and in environments where even their best friends might decline to go. Their incentive is not fame and fortune, but rather, an intrinsic curiosity to answer questions, solve problems, and detail those findings in documents that can be used by others.

Who are these people? They are scientists.

And these scientists are everyday people who are committed to research often involving specific species and specific habitats. They regularly deal with evolving changes that affect the living organisms they study and they are unabashedly passionate about the focus of their studies. Their fist pumps are cerebral, at most.

For example, I recently reached out to the scientists at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Fla., to inquire about a blue land crab (cardisoma guanhumi) that was showing up in my neighborhood in Central Florida. Scientist Sherry Reed kindly responded and informed me that Hurricane Irma had spawned a migration of these crabs as they move from salt marshes to the ocean at this time of year.

Reed provided the information I wanted, and in a follow-up email, she called these crabs “beautiful creatures” (they are!) and admitted they were “especially near and dear to [her] heart.”

That kind of passion for a species and commitment to understand their existence is exactly why I believe we should thoughtfully consider who our real heroes are and why.

Scientists most often specialize in a focus area and spend countless hours and years documenting their species. Both when things go right and when things go wrong, they still seek answers to questions.

How many times have I listened to Lori Morris of St. Johns River Water Management District passionately discuss the importance of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon? And when an algal bloom in 2011 killed 47,000 acres of precious seagrass in the estuary, why was I not surprised that Morris was out in the water with other scientists, hand-planting grasses and later snorkeling to monitor its progress?

How can I not get excited about oysters and shoreline restoration when Dr. Linda Walters of the University of Central Florida starts talking about the work she has done with oyster-shell recycling for nearly two decades? If you ever work with her on one of these shoreline projects, it’s like spending a day with the Johnny Appleseed of oysters.

I’ve also logged time on the water with Wendy Noke of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute looking for sick and injured dolphins. I’ve watched Wendy suspend her great affinity for specific animals she had monitored for years when it came time to perform necropsies to determine what had killed them. A few years ago, when a deadly virus swept the offshore dolphin population, I knew I could find Wendy with a scalpel in her gloved hands, harvesting tissue for pathology results – sometimes twice a day. Maybe even Wendy wanted to cry at the loss of so many magnificent animals, but there was too much work to be done in the name of science.

If you want to get excited about sharks, listen to George Burgess talk about his favorite species. Burgess is the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla. He has spent his career following these animals and documenting their behaviors and statistics. He can tell you where not to swim in New Smyrna Beach, based on shark-bite statistics and baitfish prevalence, but he can also espouse the miracles and mysteries of these animals from a lifetime of research.

A few times, I’ve had the privilege of walking at the elbow of Dr. Jane Brockmann, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who has studied horseshoe crabs for more than 30 years. Once I was with Dr. Brockmann when we found spawning horseshoe crabs on an atypical shoreline. These animals are thought to have been in existence for more than 445 million years, so to observe the surprise and delight of a veteran scientist who was seeing something new after three decades of study was better than witnessing a half-court buzzer beater.

Sometimes I have dinner with another professor, Dr. Hyun Jung Cho, who teaches integrated environmental science at Bethune-Cookman University, and I find myself marveling at her commitment to study wetlands and aquatic vegetation at all times – even if she’s wearing a dress on her way home from church and happens to spy a retention pond with interesting grasses. “That’s why I keep rubber boots in my car,” she said matter-of-factly, when I asked if she really waded into these ponds in her Sunday clothes.

Research ecologist Gina Kent, of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, monitors the nesting habits, migratory patterns and the habitat challenges of swallow-tailed kites. When these magnificent raptors return to Central Florida from South America to nest each year, Gina is collecting data. And with the information I have learned from her and shared with others who live where these birds nest, now my previously uninterested friends are excitedly offering regular reports on “those birds with the interesting tail feathers.”

Even away from the institutes and universities, the scientists among us help shine a spotlight on our world and its living organisms that really should be valued and cherished more than any homerun, slam-dunk, 60-yard field goal or ace in the hole.

Michael Brothers, of the Marine Science Center, for example, can look at a gathering of 10,000 seagulls on a beach and identify several different species with one quick glance. Chad Truxall of the Marine Discovery Center can lead a group to a sandbar and suddenly unveil a host of creatures just under the soil’s surface that could otherwise easily be overlooked.

Maybe I’m slowing down as I round the bases in life, but I can “see the pitches” better than ever. These scientists clearly demonstrate skill, knowledge, experience, commitment and passion – asking for nothing and giving everything they have every single time they perform.

That’s why I say, if you want to applaud someone for a genuine superstar performance, save it for our scientists. They do their excellent work for the species they study, but more importantly, for the role their species plays in the world.

Scientists are looking at history, the present and the future with the hope their respective work can help us better understand our world and what we can do to assure a viable planet. And the passion they show for their work is contagious – kind of like that wave that starts in a stadium and brings true fans to their feet.

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

by Lisa D. Mickey

Lisa D. Mickey

As naturalists at the Marine Discovery Center, it’s common to encounter wildlife on our eco-tours. Guests love it and we do, too!

But sometimes we encounter wildlife in need during our tours as we paddle in kayaks or cruise past mangrove trees on the Discovery boat. We often see dolphins and birds entangled in monofilament fishing line. Sometimes we see stranded manatees stuck on sandbars.

As the rookery islands were springing to life earlier this year with nests of various bird species, I encountered a baby pelican on the ground during one of my tours. That chick had fallen out of its nest and was dragging a bloody wing.

It’s not uncommon for birds to fall from their nests or even be pushed from the nests by their siblings. When that happens, we monitor those grounded birds to make sure their parents are still feeding them. Most of the time, these chicks are just fine. Once they have matured and grow enough feathers to fly, they quickly learn to feed themselves and no longer depend on their parents for meals.

However, adults were not tending the chick with the injured wing. I observed the baby on three different occasions and on my last observation, I decided to hop off the Discovery boat, wrap the chick in a large towel and drive it up to the bird rehab hospital at the Marine Science Center. At their vet’s office, I was told the chick had suffered a broken wing. I left the baby at the hospital for treatment and hopefully, eventual release.

More recently, I was on a kayak tour with two guests. As we paddled around the back of the rookery islands, I was telling them about the different bird species that nest there and how we were at the end of the nesting season. There were only a few stragglers still on nests, I told them.

About that time, I looked up inside the westernmost island and saw a chick hanging upside down from a nest. There was a very large adult black-crown night heron standing on the nest and the chick was dangling precariously by one leg. Its tiny wings flapped helplessly as it remained suspended above the mucky floor of the mangrove island.

I pulled my kayak over to the mangrove trees and got out of my boat. Walking below the nest underneath the trees, I could see that the tiny struggling chick had caught its foot in the nesting materials. At that point, I summoned the gentleman on my tour and asked if he would assist me with the rescue. Out came the gloves and carefully the plump little heron chick was lifted back into its nest. With the baby safely back in its nest, we quickly left the rookery island so the parent could return.

The next day, I saw the adult heron sitting on the same nest, presumably with the rescued chick comfortably underneath its mom. I spied another black-crown night heron nest not too far away, indicating that either these birds had renested because their first attempt was unsuccessful earlier in the year or that they had produced a second brood within the same nesting season.

To be clear, all of the naturalists at the Marine Discovery Center have helped rescue various species here in the Indian River Lagoon at some point in time. We clear fishing line from the rookery island mangrove trees on a regular basis. We respond to stranding calls. We watch for creatures in need.

Sometimes, we ask our guests if they want to assist, which enables us to help the animals more quickly. When that happens, it gives our guests a personal understanding of the challenges these creatures face every day living in a busy place surrounded by humans, boats, fishing gear and other species.

In an ideal world, we would only observe the beauty of the birds, the athleticism of the dolphins, the lumbering leisure of the manatees and the surprising appearance of sea turtles. We would never touch them.

But sometimes when we have to reach out, it’s to offer a helping hand to these creatures, safely returning them to their natural habitat in a shared space we all call home.

NSB High School Excavation Materials Become New Reefs

NSB High School Excavation Materials Become New Reefs

Osprey Nesting Platform

by Lisa D. Mickey

When the Marine Discovery Center cleared the site previously occupied by New Smyrna Beach High School in the summer of 2014, a unique kind of “harvest” took place as the five-acre salt marsh was restored.

All of the concrete and structural debris from the high school demolition was removed and salvaged as the Mosquito Lagoon Marine Enhancement Center took shape. In recent weeks, those same materials have been deployed offshore to build artificial reefs for fish and various marine species.


“Elements we had to excavate to build the marsh are now truly the home of the barracuda,” said Chad Truxall, executive director at the center, enjoying a reference to both a native marine fish species, as well as the New Smyrna Beach High School mascot.

“These elements have enabled us to create a habitat offshore that can be used for commercial and recreational fishing and diving,” Truxall added. “Any time you can repurpose a structure and not add to landfill space, there’s a benefit.”

According to Volusia County Coastal Construction Manager Joe Nolin, approximately 90,000 pounds of materials unearthed during construction of the MDC restored saltmarsh area were deployed by barge to the Atlantic Ocean on July 31.

A barge loaded with 350-450 tons of clean concrete culverts, structures, jersey barriers and concrete utility poles were hauled offshore to the reef construction area by an ocean-going tugboat. Nolin said the material was methodically deployed onto the seafloor and eight deployments were made this summer in the 1,500-foot by 1,500-foot Flagler nearshore reef construction area.

“[The materials were deployed] in a tight pile creating an artificial reef habitat with remarkable spatial complexity that is attractive to a wide range of fish, shrimp, crabs and marine bio-fouling invertebrates that carpet the exposed concrete surfaces,” said Nolin.

“The objective is to support the regional boating, fishing and diving marine industry,” Nolin added. “We want to create marine wildlife and artificial fishing reef habitat on the nearshore Continental Shelf in areas where no natural reef habitat exists.”

The nearshore Flagler Avenue reef construction, located approximately 2.5 miles south of Ponce de Leon Inlet and one mile offshore from Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach, created multiple reef placements approximately 70 feet wide by 100 feet long and approximately 10 feet high from the seabed. The site depth is about 40 feet.

A second reef was created offshore from Sunglow Pier in Daytona Shores, again using a barge load of 325 tons of clean concrete culverts, concrete structures of varying size and jersey barriers. Those materials were tightly stacked 10 feet high and 90 feet long at a depth of approximately 50 feet.
The artificial reefs are the first deployed by Volusia County that are located within one mile of the shoreline, said Truxall. The close proximity to the shoreline is designed to make the reefs more accessible by boat for local anglers, divers, kayakers and paddleboard enthusiasts.

“The artificial reef sites have become a focal point for both the diving and fishing communities, as well as a new home for fish and coral,” said Gary Kessler, a Marine Discovery Center boat captain and a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Master SCUBA diver trainer.

“Divers on the reefs routinely see many varieties of life, from Goliath Grouper and sharks to sting rays and snapper,” Kessler added. “The new sites, although less than a month old, have already started to attract fish.”

According to a county website (, Volusia County’s “artificial reef program began in the late 1970s when local fishermen approached the Volusia County Commission with a request for the county to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to construct artificial reefs.”

The county’s first four artificial reefs were constructed in 1979. In 2014, a total of 14 barge loads of clean culverts and concrete structures were deposited onto new locations to benefit local fishing and diving. To date, 13 artificial reefs have been constructed in 2015.

“It has been satisfying to recycle large, heavy concrete materials that would otherwise have been disposed of in the county landfill,” added Nolin. “These reefs will attract a wide range of pelagic species, such as cobia, tripletail, king mackerel and barracuda, along with numerous other fish species, such as flounder, redfish, sea trout, snook, mangrove snapper and black sea bass.”

“We have created a marine habitat that will function for decades forward and these reefs will increase the carrying capacity for reef species in our region,” Nolin added.

For an update on the reefs, check out

Contact: Lisa Mickey at

Osprey Nesting Platform At MDC

Osprey Nesting Platform At MDC

Osprey Nesting Platform

osprey nesting platform

by Lisa D. Mickey

Tom Draus and Susan Fetter experienced the usual dilemma of students enrolled in Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) classes: What would be their required project?

Both were enrolled in the FMNP Coastal Naturalist class at the Marine Discovery Center (MDC) in New Smyrna Beach during autumn 2014. Draus and Fetter sat beside each other in the class and many days, they could hear ospreys outside the classroom. Fetter suggested they team up and build an osprey-nesting platform as a joint project.

As the two researched their intended project, they learned it would take more time and materials than they had before the class ended to build the nesting platform. At the end of the six-week course, they gave their presentation on ospreys, along with information about a plan to build an actual nesting platform on the back property bordering estuarine water at the Marine Discovery Center.

“I like building things and Susan is a really good project manager,” said Draus, who spent 32 years at NASA as a hypergolic systems engineer. “So we made this a go-forward plan even though we had completed the requirements for our Coastal Naturalist class.”

By mid-January 2015, Fetter got the ball rolling again. She viewed osprey and eagle nests on webcams and learned about grants for webcams through the Hancock Wildlife Foundation. She also researched the price for materials. The two quickly decided $3,000 to build a platform was cost-prohibitive.

Instead, Draus knew he would build what he could and Fetter would reach out for help from others for the additional building materials. Fetter contacted Chad Truxall, executive director at the Marine Discovery Center and teacher of her coastal class, for help with the City of New Smyrna Beach, along with the local utilities commission. The idea was to get the city and the local power company to donate a pole and labor for the nesting platform.

Old utility poles typically cost around $400, with another $1,000 to get a pole installed, noted Fetter. By working through Truxall and his connections with the City of New Smyrna Beach, the students were relieved the pole for their osprey nest would be free – they just had to wait for one to become available.

Draus went to work on the platform, using pressure-treated wood to build a 40 x 40 square-inch nesting area with two perches. For the bottom part of the nest, he was able to obtain a vinyl-coated square of chain-link fence from a local business, which he secured with heavy-duty support straps.

“For the space shuttle, you try to make everything lightweight,” said the former NASA aerospace engineer. “For this project, you want it to be heavy-duty to last and to survive the weather outdoors.”

Draus had the 60-pound nesting platform built by February 5. The students met with the city’s utilities commission in early March, and on April 2, a 40-foot pole was dropped off at the Marine Discovery Center.

Draus and Fetter had two more things to do before the platform was raised. They placed nesting materials on the platform, inserting “starter” moss and sticks into the fence on the bottom of the nesting area. They also added an aluminum band around the pole about two feet below the nesting platform to serve as a deterrent to raccoons.

Finally, after months of planning and networking with others who could help them, Draus and Fetter watched on April 7, as a New Smyrna Beach city truck and backhoe lifted the pole with its attached osprey nesting platform and positioned it into the ground. Following one hour of installation, the osprey-nesting platform was in place.

“We were standing at the bottom and it was so cool to watch it go up,” said Fetter. “I had a big smile on my face.”

“I was sweating a little bit,” admitted Draus. “I was afraid they’d drop it as they put the pole into the ground. It’s great to see that it all finally worked out.”

Fetter hopes that when ospreys discover the platform and begin nesting, the birds will educate the public about their species, as well as “help people get more passionate about conservation causes.”

“There’s so much these birds have to do to be successful with their families,” added Fetter, a computer consultant. “It’s a fragile process.”

As for Draus, he couldn’t help but compare the osprey nest project to his past professional life at Kennedy Space Center.

“I feel like we spent a lot of time getting ready for our launch day,” he said. “Both the space shuttles I used to work on and the osprey nest we just built go off the ground, but our nest is happily positioned at 33 feet above ground instead of 150 miles above earth. I’m just happy it was a successful launch.”