Holiday time is drawing ever closer, and across the country people are planning trips to visit family, exchange gifts and ring in the New Year. But we humans aren’t the only ones with travel plans. North Atlantic right whales, some of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet, are migrating to waters off the Atlantic coast of Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida to give birth to their calves. For thousands of years these whales have migrated down from their summer habitat in waters off Greenland and Newfoundland each year to calve and raise their newborn offspring in the warm, shallow waters off our southeastern coast. The whales arrive in the area around this time each year, and calves are born from December through March. For one year after that, calves travel with their mothers until they are weaned as the southern migration begins the next season.
North Atlantic right whales were once such a common sight along the southern coastline that St. Simons Sound in Georgia was called the “Bay of Whales” by early explorers and settlers. In fact, they occasionally made their way into the Atlantic confluences of the St. Johns and St. Mary’s Rivers. They are remarkable for their size: adults reach average lengths of 50 feet and can weigh as much as 70 tons. They received their name because they were the “right whale” when it came to producing whale oil, a highly valuable commodity during the 1700s and 1800s.
As a result, they were hunted almost to extinction. The price for whale oil soared in the 1800s when it was a major source of fuel, and the North Atlantic right whale almost disappeared.
Fossil fuel development and the harnessing of electricity ended the nation’s dependence on whales as a source of oil, but by that point the North Atlantic right whale population had been so decimated that very few survived. These whales have been protected in one form or another since 1931, but because the population had reached such a low number, their recovery has been a prolonged and difficult road. It is currently estimated that even today, fewer than 500 whales swim the Atlantic coast.
Today, the greatest threats to the North Atlantic right whale are injuries sustained from collisions with ships and from entanglements in fishing gear, especially vertical lines used in trap and pot fisheries. More conservation efforts are urgently needed, especially in light of recent information indicating that progress towards recovery may have halted or even reversed. Although speed restrictions on the shipping industry are required by federal regulation, Defenders and its allies have petitioned for expanded speed limit zones to further reduce ship strikes. And although federal regulations have helped reduce the number of vertical lines in state and federal fisheries, far more collaboration is needed from state and federal agencies, advocacy groups, marine mammal scientists and fishermen to help lower the risk of entanglement injuries and mortalities.
Defenders and its conservation allies have fought hard for greater legal protections for the critically imperiled North Atlantic right whale, through petitions, litigation, and participation in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. Despite these efforts, North Atlantic right whales remain seriously endangered. From 1980 to 2000, there were only 11 right whale calves born each year. From 2001, the outlook for the population seemed to be improving: the number of calves increased to an average of 24 each year, peaking at 39 calves in the winter of 2008-2009. Unfortunately, since 2009, the calving rate has been on a steady decline and has dropped by nearly 40% since 2012. In 2016 there were only 13 or 14 calves documented. The most recent aerial surveys documenting mother-calf pairs show the lowest numbers of such pairs since aerial surveys began in 1984.
Considering these calving declines and that there are fewer than 100 breeding females in the population, it’s critical to keep the waters where they give birth safe and conducive to raising strong, healthy calves. To protect the winter calving grounds of the North Atlantic right whale, a critical conservation area was first established in 1994, and was expanded in 2016 to include just off Cape Fear NC, south to just past Cape Canaveral, FL, encompassing approximately 11,162 square miles. The National Marine Fisheries Service expanded this designation of “critical habitat” in response to a petition by Defenders and its allies under the Endangered Species Act.
Marine mammal scientists, conservationists and seasonal volunteer groups collaborate through groups such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Sea to Shore Alliance and the Marineland Right Whale Watch have identified calving hotspots from low flying aircraft over head, public piers or elevated dunes. For over 16 years, the Marineland Right Whale Project has mobilized a network of volunteer citizen scientists that whale watch and monitor every winter.
In northeast Florida, a great place to learn about right whales is the Environmental Education Center of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in St. Augustine. Another place to learn about marine mammal resources is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center, near Cape Canaveral.
Want to see a North Atlantic right whale for yourself? A broad, elevated line of sight over the Atlantic coast, patience and binoculars are a prerequisite for whale watching. So, if you’re on the southeastern Atlantic coast during the holiday season, keep your eyes peeled: you may get an unexpected gift – a glimpse of a brand new baby North Atlantic right whale!