The season’s first sighting of North Atlantic right whales on the Georgia coast underscores the fact that Georgia and north Florida are the only known calving grounds for these endangered whales.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission survey plane spotted a right whale mother and her new calf 16 miles off Cumberland Island Saturday. The mom, cataloged as right whale number 2145, is 24 years old and has been documented with five calves, the previous one in 2009.
Each winter, pregnant right whales and small numbers of non-breeding whales swim more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off Canada and New England to the warmer waters of Georgia and northeastern Florida. Here, from late November through March, they give birth and nurse their young.
This season has started slowly. The first sighting is usually earlier. But biologist Clay George, right whale research leader for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, isn’t worried about the timing.
“It’s still too early to tell how many calves will be born this season,” said Mr. George, who works with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. “January and February are the peak months for calving.”
Once ravaged by whaling and now threatened by ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear, North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most imperiled whales. Their numbers are estimated at about 450. While that population is increasing 2.8 percent a year, there are fewer than 100 breeding females and calving varies year to year, with only 10 calves documented last winter.
Keys to keeping the right whale recovery on track include protecting habitat and minimizing hazards, such as the risk of being hit by ships, snared in lobster pot trap lines or even harassed by recreational boaters.
It’s rare that a recreational boater runs into a right whale, but it has happened. Boaters should be on the lookout in winter. Right whales sometimes come near shore and they often swim slowly on or just below the surface, a low profile that belies the fact these mammals can be as big as a school bus.
A more common issue is intentionally boating too close to a right whale. Such encounters can disrupt the animal’s behavior and raise the risk of collisions. Federal law prohibits approaching or remaining within 500 yards.
Georgia DNR works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Sea to Shore Alliance and others to conserve right whales. That effort includes research, monitoring, helping disentangle whales and protecting these rare mammals and their habitats.
In February, biologists from the wildlife agencies cut away more than 480 feet of rope from a 4-year-old whale off Wolf Island in Georgia, an effort posted on YouTube (http://goo.gl/7eOvbl). Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the leading causes of death and injury for North Atlantic right whales. More than 75 percent of right whales bear scars from entanglements.
The public is encouraged to report sightings of dead, injured or entangled whales at 1-800-2-SAVE-ME(1-800-272-8363) in Georgia or 1-877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) region-wide. NOAA’s Dolphin & Whale 911 app, http://1.usa.gov/1b1kqfv, can also be used to report marine mammals in trouble.