120719_rightwhale

A North Atlantic right whale named Naevus is shown with a calf in a photo by staff from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute in December 2013. She was seen again recently in Georgia waters.

Entering this week, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced people spotted at least five female North Atlantic right whales so far, in the traditional calving waters off the South Atlantic states, including Harmonia, which last gave birth in 2016 and was reported off Mayport, Fla., in November.

Of the other four, researchers saw Naevus off Georgia. She’s nearly 30 years old, first spotted as a calf back up north in Cape Cod Bay in May 1990. She’s also been photographed with her own calves at least four times — once in December 2004, then in January 2011 and December 2013 and again with that same third calf in June 2014.

Her last sighting in the southern calving waters was in the 2013-14 season, as she arrived off Georgia around Dec. 17, 2013, and last seen off Florida on Feb. 16, 2014. The whales’ arrivals come during a critical series of years for the species.

“We have lost 30 right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017,” Barb Zoodsma, a right whale biologist, said according to a NOAA report. “The number of right whale deaths is unsustainable for a population of a little more than 400 animals, particularly because we estimate that there are only about 100 breeding females who are producing fewer calves each year.”

Stress from human activity — injuries from crab and lobster fishing equipment, boat strikes, climate change effects — have led to fewer mature females making the southern calving run as often, with three-to-four year calving cycles lengthening to as many as 10 years for some whales. And since right whales only give birth to one calf at a time, each year missed can be be a problem.

Researchers found three of the whales spotted recently — Arpeggio, Harmony and Slalom — off South Carolina, so they could be nearby at any time.

Arpeggio is 22 years old, first seen off Georgia in February 1997. Harmony is 18, seen first around Florida in January 2001, and Slalom is the oldest right whale spotted so far, as she’s 37 years old and first recorded as a calf in the Bay of Fundy in August 1982.

State Department of Natural Resources biologist Mark Dodd reported Friday to the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative that while local right whale surveys have just recently kicked off, they’re seeing more than whales out on the water.

“The sea turtle nesting season is over in Georgia, but we still have sea turtles in our coastal waters,” Dodd wrote. “Yesterday marked the first day of right whale surveys. The Georgia DNR survey crew reported heavy cannonball jellyfish concentrations in some areas. No whales were seen, but a leatherback (sea turtle) popped up near the boat approximately 10 miles due east of Sea Island.”

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