“I never would have thought it was a humpback whale so I didn't really take the time to go over and try to locate it. Now, I'm very mad at myself.”
PANAMA CITY BEACH — It was nothing short of a “whaley” big surprise.
A passing fisherman didn’t even realize what he saw until later, but a Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) Officer in the area took a picture of the gray hump that surfaced offshore.
It was a humpback whale, both FWC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed.
“I never would have thought it was a humpback whale so I didn’t really take the time to go over and try to locate it,” said the fisherman Bob Bennett. “Now, I’m very mad at myself.”
He was he was about 12 to 15 miles offshore on Feb. 15 when a buddy he was fishing with, Dallas Doyle, said “what is that hump?” Bennet shut down his boat in time to see the whale dive back down, but didn’t see the humpback again after that.
In the winter months, juvenile humpback whales will head to Florida and often stay near shore, said FWC spokeswoman Rebekah Nelson said in an email. Normally, they stay in the Atlantic ocean, but occasionally they will make a detour.
“Like right whales, humpbacks are occasional visitors to the Gulf,” Nelson said. “We don’t expect to find them there regularly, but we are not surprised by the sighting either.”
She added, there is no reason to suspect the humpback was ill or injured.
While uncommon, this is the second time this year a whale has been spotted off Panama City Beach. In January, an endangered right whale was spotted swimming past the second sandbar, the first seen in Gulf of Mexico since 2006. There are less than 500 of them left.
While humpback whales were one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act, they are now off the list due to growing populations, according to the 2016 stock assessment.
A fully grown humpback whale weighs 25 to 40 tons, is up to 60 feet long and will live to be about 50 years old. They’re well known by whale watchers for their habitat of breaching — jumping out of the water — and slapping the water with their fins, tails and head.
Humpback whales — whose scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae means “big-winged New Englander” — spend the summer months building up fat stores in the rich feeding grounds such as the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of Mexico before heading south to tropical or subtropical waters in the winter months to breed. According to NOAA, they make the farthest migration of an mammal.