Tyler Treadway, Treasure Coast Newspapers
Published 11:40 a.m. ET Dec. 24, 2019 | Updated 12:28 p.m. ET Dec. 24, 2019
Now’s the right time to start looking for right whales.
North Atlantic right whales have started their annual migration from the cold waters off New England to warmer climes from Florida to the Caribbean Sea.
The southbound trek should pick up steam in January and February and last until March. The whales tend to swim with the nearshore north-to-south currents, so they can be seen from the beach.
When the whales head back north in April and May, they ride the Gulf Stream, so they’re farther offshore.
On Dec. 16, 2019, a female right whale mom, No. 3560, gave birth to first calf into the world off Sapelo Island, Georgia, the first calf spotted during the 2019-2020 calving season.
The first, and so far only, right whale sighting in Florida this season came Nov. 23, when a female named Harmonia was spotted about 6 miles off Jacksonville.
That’s right: Many right whales have names.
Individuals can be identified by the bumpy spots on their heads. The spot pattern is unique for each whale, like a human’s fingerprints, said Julie Albert, coordinator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program at the Palm Bay-based Marine Resources Council.
Harmonia had her last calf in 2016, Albert said, “so it’s possible she’s pregnant again.”
Into the Sebastian Inlet
In February 2016, a female right whale named Clipper and her calf spent 29 hours in the Sebastian Inlet.
Unfortunately, the mother was later struck and killed by a ship.
The calf, now a 4-year-old male, was named Sebastian.
“It’s possible Sebastian could once again end up in the Sebastian area he was named for,” Albert said.
Last February, another right whale mother and calf were sighted in the Atlantic off the Sebastian Inlet.
There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales. They’re listed as critically endangered and are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Humpback whales, which also can be seen along the Treasure Coast during the winter, are doing better, with a population of between 30,000 and 40,000 worldwide, according to the American Cetacean Society.
Stay 500 yards away
Boaters are required by federal law to stay 500 yards — that’s five football fields — away from both species of whales.
Right whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the days before kerosene, when whale oil was burned in lamps. In fact, the species got its common name because whalers considered them the “right whales” to catch.
“First, right whales were easy to catch because they travel close to shore, they’re slower than other whales and the dead carcasses float, to they were easy to haul back,” Albert said. “And right whales have more blubber and produce more oil than any other whale species.”
Now the biggest threat to right whales is getting tangled up in commercial fishing gear. (Remember: Whales are mammals and need to come to the surface to breathe.)
Efforts are underway to develop — and convince fishermen to use — whale-safe gear.
“It involves fishermen, for sure,” Albert said, “but it also involves anyone who eats seafood. We all share the ocean, and we’re trying to figure out a happy medium that works for fishermen and whales.”
In the meantime, Albert said, whale-conscious, seafood-loving consumers should consider eating locally caught seafood.
“Entanglement is more of an issue up north,” Albert said. “Plus, it’s good to support local fishermen.”
Another way to be whale-friendly: Buy American.
The No. 2 cause of whale deaths is ship strikes, like the one that killed Clipper, the Sebastian visitor.
“The more products you buy that don’t have to be shipped overseas,” Albert said, “the fewer ships are out there to strike and kill whales.”
Thar she blows!
Here’s how to identify an endangered right whale:
- No dorsal fins on their backs
- Short pectoral fins on their sides
- Spout straight-up plumes of water out their blowholes
- Adults are 35-60 feet long (A 90-passenger school bus, the biggest allowed, is 45 feet long.) and weigh 50-70 tons (or about the weight of 100 grand pianos)
Save a whale by reporting sightings ASAP: Call the Marine Resources Council whale hotline: 888-979-4253. (The information is sent to commercial and military ships so they know what areas to avoid.)
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