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POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA

A tale of whales in Flagler Beach

Jim Abbott on Travel

Postcards from Florida

February 23, 2013

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On a previous visit to Flagler Beach, I glimpsed a rare and wondrous site.

Along with a handful of lunchtime diners at a rustic beachfront restaurant, I spotted a few North Atlantic right whales out in the distance in the Atlantic Ocean. The global population of these large sea mammals can be measured in hundreds and the waters off Florida and south Georgia are prime territory for calving and nursing offspring in the colder winter months.

Of course, my whale-sighting experience unfolded with the unfortunate cluelessness that accompanies so many of my nature encounters:

"What's everyone looking at?" I asked the diners with the bucket of beers on the outdoor deck of High Tide at Snack Jack's (snackjacks.com). The iconic surfer stop, about a mile south of the Flagler Beach Pier on State Road A1A, has been around for more than 60 years.

Informed of the whales cavorting in the distance, I squinted at the horizon.

"Is that them?"

"No? To the left?"

I did see something out there, but without binoculars it was hard to distinguish the dark spot in the water from a shadow on the surface. Still, the excitement on the deck was enough to make me feel like I had been part of something special.

I returned about a week ago to take another look. I tossed binoculars in the back seat so I would be ready, but no whales were to be seen on a sunny, if unseasonably chilly, afternoon.

Everywhere I inquired about the whales — in the quirky shop that sells ukuleles, sandals and health food or on the pier — I heard the same story: There had been whales last week, but nothing since.

The window for potential sightings extends into early March, with updates on activity available on the Facebook page for Flagler Beach Whale Watch.

Even without whales in the picture, Flagler Beach is a lovely laid-back destination between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine. There's prime people watching among the anglers on the 800-foot pier ($1.50 to stroll; $6 to fish), canoe and kayak rentals, hiking trails and bird-watching at nearby Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area (florida stateparks.org).

Don't leave without channeling your inner beach bum at Snack Jack's, where it's cash only and a prospect of watching surfers —and whales — is often on the horizon.