Tracking critically endangered whales off the Southeast coast

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the world’s rarest marine mammals. The reason why coincides with how it came upon its name.

Supposedly they got their name as the whalers identified them as the “right whale” to hunt. Back in the late 1800s they were almost hunted to extinction. 

Alan Shirey, us army corps of engineers

They made for easy prey to bring aboard their ships as they stayed close to shore and floated when they were killed. Today, they are no longer hunted by whalers but human activities are still impacting their populations.

“Because they stay in shallow waters they are much more susceptible to ship strikes with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear,” Shirey says.

NOAA fisheries estimate over 85 percent of right whales have been caught in fishing nets at least once. These encounters drain the whale’s energy it needs to swim, eat, and reproduce. 

As such their populations have struggled to rebound since their decimation over a century ago. Today there are less than 400 North American Right Whales, and less than 100 breeding females.

A North Atlantic Right Whale & her calf spotted off the Southeast coast.
Photo credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

“Every individual is critical to the survival of the species.”

Melanie White heads a conservation project out of the Clearwater Marine Research Institute in Florida. Her team, in conjunction with numerous other organizations including US Army Corp of Engineers out of Charleston, track & photograph these critically endangered whales from the sky daily every winter as they migrate from Canada and New England, through the Carolinas, and down to their calving grounds in Georgia and Florida. This year additional flight crews have been stationed out of Myrtle Beach and Beaufort, North Carolina to monitor the Carolina coastline. White’s team is stationed and flies out of Georgia, where most of these whales reside for the winter.

“We do individually identify right whales based on unique patterns found on the top of their heads- they’re called callosities patterns. Just like how every human has a unique fingerprint, we can identify these whales based on those patterns,” she says.

Nearly all 400 whales have been photographed and catalogued through the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. This “whale Facebook” helps conservationists monitor their health, habitat, and more importantly- whether or not they’ve given birth to a calf. 

In addition, these daily low flying aerial surveys immediately alert commercial mariners once a whale has been spotted so they can avoid the area and take extra precautions- hopefully avoiding a tragic boat strike. Even amateur boaters should pay attention when out on the open water, as the whale’s black color and lack of a dorsal fin can make them tricky to spot.

A pair of right whales in the shallow waters off the Georgia coast. Notice how they do not have a fin on their back- making them more difficult to spot compared to other whales & dolphins.
Photo credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

While most sightings occur further south, right whales do swim past us in Charleston- one was spotted just outside the harbor last month. 

Shirey and White urge you to keep your distance if you do happen to see one of these rare right whales. Federal law requires that you stay 500 yards away from a right whale or any other endangered species. They also urge you to report your sighting by calling 877-WHALE-HELP ((877) 942-5343) or notify the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16. 

“(That report) bounces back to us in the sky, and so if we’re up there we can narrow down where we have to look,” White says. “It’s a huge coastline we are trying to cover. The more people keeping an eye out for these whales, the more help you’re being to us and the species itself. And we are very thankful for that.” 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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