Right Whale Sightings Sparse this Year

Right Whale Sightings Sparse this Year

Socializing right whales photographed off the coast of Charleston in 2012. Researchers can identify individuals from their white callus patterns -- the large whale second from right, with extensive back and face scarring, is a male known as Ruffian, who was disentangled from fishing gear in Georgia waters this winter. (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

Socializing right whales photographed off the coast of Charleston in 2012. Researchers can identify individuals from their white callus patterns -- the large whale second from right, with extensive back and face scarring, is a male known as Ruffian, who was disentangled from fishing gear in Georgia waters this winter. (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

Right whale sightings in South Carolina are always a rare occurrence – one of the most endangered whales in the world, these massive mammals pass through our waters only on their ways to and from winter calving grounds in Georgia and Florida.

But this winter, the species appeared infrequently across the entire Southeast – and South Carolina reported zero sightings.

Researchers estimate about 450 North Atlantic right whales (one of three right whale species) inhabit the waters off the east coast of the United States and Canada. They feed on enormous quantities of plankton as far north as Greenland in summer, then migrate to warmer, southern latitudes in winter. While the commercial whaling that nearly eliminated the species has long been outlawed, right whales still face a range of threats, both man-made and natural. Collisions with ships and accidental capture in fishing gear remain the main sources of human-caused death for right whales.

An average of 24 calves were born per year during the 2000s, but recent years have seen a below-average number of births. By March of this year, our colleagues in Georgia and Florida had spotted only three mother/calf pairs and one adult male.

“This is shaping up to be the second worst calving season since right whale research began in the early 1980s,” Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Clay George said.  

With no dorsal fin and dark coloring, right whales are notoriously difficult to spot from the water. (Photo: Georgia DNR, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

With no dorsal fin and dark coloring, right whales are notoriously difficult to spot from the water. (Photo: Georgia DNR, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

Given the unusually warm winter, George wondered if some of the animals might have stopped off in the Carolinas, north of their usual wintering grounds. GADNR contracted marine conservation nonprofit Sea to Shore Alliance to survey the waters of the Carolinas by plane, hoping to find any whales tempted by warm waters and a supply of food to remain north.

Throughout February, Sea to Shore Alliance staff flew three aerial surveys north though South Carolina waters to Cape Hatteras and back.

“Unfortunately, they did not see any right whales,” George said. “They saw some humpbacks off North Carolina, but that’s it. The last right whale sighting we’re aware of was on February 19 near Cumberland Island, Georgia.”

Preliminary results from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, whose National Marine Fisheries Service oversees the management of the right whale, indicates the population may have started declining in 2012. But low calving numbers are just one part of the equation. Thirty right whales were killed or seriously injured by ship strikes and commercial fishing entanglements from 2010 to 2014.

“All we can do is hope the whales start popping out more calves soon to offset natural and anthropogenic mortality,” George said.

There’s some hopeful precedent that the right whale birth rate could naturally bounce back. After only one calf was seen in 2000, a record 31 calves were spotted the very next year, George said.

A mother and calf right whale pair swim off the coast of Sapelo Island, GA in 2015. This is the sixth known calf for female #1602, dubbed "Mantis." (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

A mother and calf right whale pair swim off the coast of Sapelo Island, GA in 2015. This is the sixth known calf for female #1602, dubbed "Mantis." (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488)

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