The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the season was spotted off South Carolina Monday.

It could be a good omen for those who track this critically endangered species. Fewer than 350 of these bus-sized whales remain, said Clay George,  a senior wildlife biologist who leads the DNRs’ work with marine mammals. 

They come to Southeast waters to give birth and nurse their young after feeding in the waters off New England and Canada. They’ve suffered high mortality from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear in recent years, adding hope and anxiety to another birthing season. Since 2017, 10% of the population has died. Last year, 19 calves were born. 

Researchers like George would like to see a baby boom of at least 20 this season. 

“I’m trying to stay optimistic in the sense that we’ve been hearing from colleagues in Canada that the last couple summers the whales have looked pretty good especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that they seem to be finding food,” George said. “We keep waiting for this period where we have a good chunk of the females that show up and and are pregnant. So every year that goes by with very few calving females means that there’s that many more that are available to calf. They can only calf every three or four years at the most frequent.” 

First-time mother, Catalog #3230 ‘Infinity’, was 19 years old and the oldest daughter of #2040 ‘Naevus’. Naevus has produced three adult female calves and all three gave birth last winter (#3230 Infinity, #3520 Millipede, #3860 Bocce)! Millipede gave birth to her first calf in 2013 and Bocce gave birth to her first calf in 2016, but both calves are presumed dead. Infinity’s calf died in a boat strike.

The Southeast, from South Carolina to northern Florida, is the only place North Atlantic right whales routinely give birth and nurse their young. They usually appear here in December. 

With the assistance of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources will help perform aerial surveys beginning Dec. 1. Every day the weather allows, the teams will  traverse the offshore area looking for the whales, which are Georgia’s official state marine mammal.

They’re called right whales because their slow speed and tendency to float when killed made them the right whale to hunt. So did their habit of swimming near the coastline, which has earned them the nickname of urban whale. They were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s but have been protected from whalers since 1935. 

But last month the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced their population dropped to 336 in 2020, an eight percent decrease from 2019. The latest estimate is down from 366 in 2019. It’s the lowest population number for the species in nearly 20 years.

Their most recent peak was in 2011, when the species was estimated at 481 whales.  In just the last decade that’s shrunk by 30%. 

Even sportfishing vessels can kill

“So it’s really depressing, and not going the right way,” said George, who has devoted the last 15 years or so to whale work in Georgia. “And of course, the three issues are vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing rope, and climate change.”

After accidentally striking a right whale, the captain of the “About Time” intentionally grounded the sinking sportfishing boat’ in Salt Run on Anastasia Island within the State Park. Credit: Florida FWC boating accident report

A graphic example of the danger of vessel strikes occurred in northern Florida last year. A 54-foot sport-fishing boat, the “About Time,” struck a right whale calf off Anastasia Island around 6:20 p.m. on Feb. 12 as it returned from a fishing trip. The boat was cruising around 21 knots, approximately 0.41 miles east of St. Augustine Inlet. The captain was unsure of what they had hit.  But the owner of the $1.1 M 54-foot Jarrett Bay, Dayne  Williams, reported saying, “I think we hit a whale, I saw fins and blood.”

The captain beached the boat, which was seriously damaged and taking on water. 

“The starboard side drive shaft was bent, and the strut that holds the propeller in place was pushed through the hull of the vessel. Both propellers were bent, and the damage was consistent with hitting a large object,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission report read. 

 The next day a dead, month-old whale calf washed ashore on Anastasia Island with propeller gashes across its back and head.  The baby whale, a male, also sustained broken ribs and a cracked skull. It was the first known calf of a 19-year-old mother, sighted off Amelia Island a month prior.

Approximately 22-foot-long dead right whale calf. The one-month old, male calf of Catalog #3230 beached on Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, FL on February 13, 2021. The calf had injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Credit: FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

Vessel speed regulations are in place to slow marine traffic to 10 knots when right whales are nearby, but they apply to ships 65 feet or longer. The “About Time” was 54-feet long. Florida FWC concluded there was no evidence it had violated navigation rules or state statues. 

Until those rules are revisited to include smaller boats, the advice is simple.

“Right now, we’re just saying slow down,” George said. “It’s good for the whales, it’s good for the safety of your boat and your crew and your passengers.”

George can’t yet suggest a specific speed. The regulations for larger vessels are based on research. 

“Ten knots  seem to be the switch point where whales went from surviving to dying, but the whole scenario (with a 65-foot or larger vessel) is quite different than a small boat,” he said. 

He suggests boaters do what whale researchers do.

“I can tell you that when we go offshore, and then locations where at times when whales are around, we basically go to what we call minimum planing speed,” he said.   

 He also suggests boaters stay vigilant. 

“Keep a sharp eye and avoid boating during periods when it’s dark or the conditions and visibility are poor,” he said.

A species might depend on it.

Right whale rules: Federal law requires vessels, paddle boarders and aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to stay at least 500 yards (five football fields) away from right whales. These restrictions are in place to reduce the risk of harassment or collisions between right whales and boats. Vessels 65 feet and longer are legally required to slow to speeds of 10 knots or less in Seasonal Management Areas along the East Coast. This includes the calving and nursery area.

Right whales often swim and rest just below the surface and can be invisible to approaching vessels. It’s important for vessel operators to follow applicable speed rules, and for boaters to slow down whenever possible.

U.S. speed restrictions are in place for certain vessels along the mid-Atlantic November 1–April 30 and in the southeast U.S. calving area November 15–April 15.

View more information on seasonal vessel speed restrictions.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.