Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Funded by United States Army Corps of Engineers.
First right whale calf of the season spotted
Mary Landers, The Current
Researchers with Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute sighted the first North Atlantic right whale mom and calf pair of the 2023-2024 season near the entrance to Winyah Bay near Georgetown, S.C., on Tuesday.
The calf is no more than four days old, Florida’s FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute posted on Facebook. The mother, Juno, or more officially Catalog #1612, is at least 38 years old, and this is her eighth calf documented by researchers. She last gave birth four years ago during the 2019-2020 season.
Whale watchers in Georgia welcomed the news.
“The recent spotting of ‘Juno’ and her newborn calf is exciting news!” wrote Oceana’s Georgia Field Representative Hermina Glass-Hill, who organized Whale Week activities in Coastal Georgia in November.
Seven more adult female right whales ranging in age from 14 years to more than 42 years old have been sighted from North Carolina to Georgia since Nov. 15, all potential mothers this winter, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported.
With a population estimated at 360 individuals, north Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered large whales. Once hunted nearly to extinction, their numbers rebounded to over 400 but have dwindled in recent years with increased mortality from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Climate change is also pushing whales to search for their food — zooplanton and tiny crustaceans — in places that have fewer protections in place, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.
Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off New England and Canada to the shallow, coastal waters of their calving grounds off of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. Researchers regularly fly aerial surveys to document the whales’ presence and the birth of calves. Doing so helps them mitigate ship collisions, monitor reproductive rates, provide scientific data for marine decision-makers, assist in disentangling whales from fishing gear, locate carcasses for recovery and necropsies, and aid in genetic research.
Last season, 11 calves were documented, with only one new mother in the group. The prior two seasons saw 15 and 18 calves. All three seasons were disappointing compared to the average of 24 per year from the 2000s.
To protect right whales, speed limits are in place for vessels over 65 feet, requiring them to travel at 10 knots or less in designated Seasonal Management Areas when those areas are active (Nov. 1 to April 30 north of Georgia’s Sapelo Island, and Nov. 15 through April 15 south of Sapelo; see maps).
NOAA has proposed expanding its regulation to include smaller vessels, but sport- and commercial fishing interests as well as harbor pilots object. Coastal Georgia congressman Buddy Carter has sided with those who oppose the rule’s expansion. But smaller boats have been known to injure and kill right whales, including a 2021 incident off Florida when the 54-foot sportfisher About Time struck a mother/calf pair, killing the baby.
“If all stakeholders worked together to understand what is at stake, Georgia could be the leading changemaker for North Atlantic right whale conservation,” Glass-Hill texted. “After all, it is our state marine mammal. … As we saw this past Whale Week last month, so many Georgians are rooting for them and they have been urging our members of Congress to support good legislation that fully protects North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes as well as entanglements.”
Boating slowly can reduce the probability of vessel collisions, whale injuries and damage to vessels, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources advises. Boaters can learn about recent whale sightings and via the Whale Alert app.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.