It's 'Whale Week' — when endangered right whales return to coastal Georgia waters
Whale Week is underway in Savannah, Ga., through Nov. 21, 2021. Each year between November and April, endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate to the Southeast's warmer waters to calve.
Whale Week is a chance for people ranging from first graders to musicians to business owners to celebrate and learn about whales.
Paulita Bennett-Martin is the federal policy manager with the world's largest ocean conservation organization, Oceana, and a co-founder of Whale Week. She joined All Things Considered host Rickey Bevington from Savannah.
Rickey Bevington: Paint a picture of how endangered North Atlantic right whales are. Will this species survive?
Paulita Bennett-Martin: We're going to do everything that we can to make sure that the species does survive. Right now, the numbers for North Atlantic right whales are around 330 left in our ocean.
Rickey Bevington: That's not a lot when we're talking about the survival of a species. Why does migrating to Georgia's warmer coastal waters put these whales at risk?
Paulita Bennett-Martin: Coming all the way down from the areas that they're in in the north is triumphant in itself, right? These whales go all the way up to Canadian waters, often in areas like the Bay of St. Lawrence. And then they migrate all the way down here to Georgia's offshore waters and the tip of North Florida as well. Along those coasts on the Atlantic are a lot of very busy ports and a lot of activity. So they are traversing a gauntlet of problems of things that put them at danger.
Rickey Bevington: Is the biggest risk propellers? Getting hit by boats?
Paulita Bennett-Martin: Getting struck by vessels is one of the two biggest risks to North Atlantic right whales. The other risk for North Atlantic right whales is entanglement in commercial fishing line. What we have down in the south end of the region for the North Atlantic right whales, we're seeing noncompliance rates of about 85% on vessels in ports between Wilmington, North Carolina and Brunswick, Georgia. So the south end, which also happens to be the calving area, the only known calving area for these endangered whales, is where we're seeing a lot of vessels speeding. And so that's a serious danger to them.
Rickey Bevington: You created Whale Week about five years ago to gain public interest and curiosity and education. What has been the impact in the last couple of years?
Paulita Bennett-Martin: More awareness, definitely. It's visually and culturally noticeable. We started Whale Week as a one night art show five years ago. From that, businesses came forward, small local nonprofits, all sorts of entities came forward and said, "We need to do more around this."
And so from that one-night event grew into a week of events. There's something for everyone, from art lessons to musical performances. We even have events that are focused on women and whale conservation.
Rickey Bevington: And there's a career fair this year. What's that about? Adding a career fair to a — to an ocean conservation event?
Paulita Bennett-Martin: Absolutely. A local PR firm reached out. So this firm has registered over 400 participants to come out and learn about jobs in ocean conservation. And so there will be different nonprofits there to speak with people. There will be state agency people there to speak with people. And there will also be people there that help young folks learn how to sign up for college funding to go to school.
Rickey Bevington: What can the average person do to "save the whales?"
Paulita Bennett-Martin: I think of 1, 2, 3. First, get educated. That just means learn about the North Atlantic right whale. Step two: if you are on the water or you are a fisherman or just like to tool around in your boat ... between November and April slow down. Be cognizant of the fact that these endangered whales are here off the coast of Georgia and likely here to have a calf. So do your part in protecting them by just slowing your vessel down, being careful and educate other mariners, as well, on the water. And number three: hold your government accountable. We're at a time right now where we have to do every approach that we can. And everyone's voice is important to protecting the species for the future.