With the continued existence of right whales a serious concern, none have yet to show off the South Atlantic coast, stoking serious concerns during this calving season.
“I went back and looked at that, and this appears to be the longest time that I’m aware of,” said Clay George, who leads right whale efforts for the state Department of Natural Resources. “I was able to look back at the data to 1989, which is when the surveys started down here, systematically, with New England Aquarium doing their surveys in ’89. And since then, the latest date that a calf was seen, actually, was Jan. 1, which was last year.”
He said the situation puts right whales and the people who research them into “uncharted territory.”
“We don’t know if it’s just there aren’t any here, or if they’re somewhere else, or given how poor the weather’s been, that we just have not had a sufficient survey effort yet,” George said.
Whale-spotting flights were underway as of press time Tuesday, by Sea to Shore Alliance — a nonprofit working with DNR — and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Researchers estimate there are roughly 450 right whales in existence. About 100 of those are breeding females, scientists believe. There were 17 right whale deaths recorded in 2017.
The first right whale of this season, surprisingly, may have been spotted by a couple looking out at the Gulf of Mexico from their condominium near Panama City Beach, Fla. They reportedly noticed the whale Monday.
“It was right off shore,” Neal Hart said Tuesday to the Panama City News Herald. “We watched it just pass the second sandbar — we swim out there when it’s warmer — and you could see it stir up big clouds of sand ... to see one that close to the beach for goodness sake. It was amazing.”
The News Herald report noted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last recorded a right whale sighting in the Gulf in 2006.
Beyond historic overfishing that put right whales on the edge of extinction, heavy cables used in the snow crab and lobster fishing off New England and Canadian maritime provinces have been known to entangle right whales to the point of severe injury and death.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company reported Friday that a necropsy of a 2-year-old female right whale, found on a New Brunswick beach, revealed the whale died because of severe entanglement in fishing gear that resulted in “deep cuts on its body, mouth, fins and in its blubber.”
While no right whales have been seen in traditional calving zones so far this season — which is roughly a month old — George said the weather has also been a factor in getting eyes in the air.
“No one’s flown for about a week, because as you know, the weather’s been pretty poor — it’s either been windy or overcast or icy, or what have you,” George said.