Calves spotted during the Atlantic migration season

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North Atlantic the calving season for right whales is well underway, with nine mother-calf pairs already spotted off the coast of Florida to South Carolina.

Fewer than 350 whales remain and the critically endangered species is currently dying at a faster rate than it can reproduce. every birth is a reason for celebration.

“It’s really too early to say what kind of season we’re going to have,” said Tom Pitchford, wildlife biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Research Institute.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that it would take 20 new calves born this year just to keep the population stable.

This has only happened twice in the past decade, although it was once a regular occurrence. Only 70 breeding North Atlantic right whales remain alive, the researchers say.

“We have to do everything we can to reverse this trend and get them on an upward trajectory,” Pitchford said.

The North Atlantic right whale is rapidly approaching extinction due to human impacts, according to Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium who has studied the creatures for decades.

“There is always a question of why should we be putting so much effort into saving this species,” Knowlton mused. “I feel like it’s a moral obligation. With financial support and the will of society, we can truly change the trajectory of right whales and many other species affected by our use of the oceans.

If the red flag is not heard, Knowlton said she feared “all bets are on to prevent further extinctions of marine mammals.”

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‘Snow Cone’ gave birth to a calf, but remains entangled

The species is carefully monitored by state, federal and non-governmental entities. Aerial surveys begin in late November, with researchers from North Carolina to Florida flying in parallel lines along the coast in search of whales.

“These planes do daily surveys in the calving area,” Pitchford said.

They have already seen dozens of whales, most of them off the coast of Florida, the southernmost end of the species.

The first North Atlantic right whale spied on in the state was filmed by a group on a sailboat offshore near St. Augustine Inlet on November 28, before flights began in the state.

Less than a week later, a 17-year-old whale dubbed Snow Cone captured the hearts of whale watchers when she was spotted with her new calf playfully swimming among the fishing lines stuck to its head.

Snow Cone has two strings coming out of its mouth that appear to be wrapped around a segment of baleen on the right side.

It was worse when he was first noticed in March, but researchers monitoring the couple believe they are no longer life threatening.

“The fact that she was able to give birth is because she was the subject of several attempts at disentangling. If she hadn’t been disentangled, I don’t think she would have survived. She wouldn’t have survived. certainly couldn’t carry a calf to term, ”Knowlton said.

The tragic life of Snow Cone is somewhat emblematic of the threats to the species. Her only other known calf ran aground in June, dead after being struck by a boat.

Right whale breaches open water

How to save the North Atlantic right whale population?

An unusual mortality event was reported for North Atlantic right whales in 2017 and is considered continuous, with the main causes identified being entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with vessels.

“The more we can do to control these two factors, the better,” said Pitchford.

“I think there is still work to be done at the federal level,” Knowlton said.

In 2008, in the southeast, large boats were limited to a top speed of 10 knots or 11.5 mph.

“We have seasonal speed restrictions for vessels over 65ft. I think that’s great, a really valuable regulatory change,” Knowlton said.

However, smaller ships also struck and killed the animals.

North Atlantic right whale that a team of state and federal biologists helped unravel off Daytona Beach in 2010.

In the 1990s, the fishing industry began using ropes made from polymers with roughly double the strength, which Knowlton said dramatically increased the severity of injuries from entangling whales.

“Over 85% of the population has scars that indicate they have had a tangle,” Knowlton said. “It’s a pretty chronic problem that these animals face and we’re seeing an increase in the rate of serious injuries. Whales are just a lot more exposed to more equipment and stronger ropes and I think this combination has been. very difficult for the species. “

Seasonal fishing closures have been instituted in the Northeast and weak spots are needed in the lines. If a whale becomes entangled, Knowlton said it is unlikely to survive beyond three years.

Cordless fishing could have potential, she added.

“It’s an amazing technology that has come a long way over the past few years. There are still some issues to be addressed, but I think it would be an amazing solution,” she said. “The weak rope should be imposed broadly until cordless technology becomes a viable solution. “

Sublethal impacts are still being revealed, she said, noting that entangled North Atlantic right whales are less likely to breed and may have longer calving intervals. Juveniles are getting smaller and smaller than before, a recently published study found.

A North Atlantic right whale swims with its calf in the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida-Georgia border.

All new North Atlantic right calves in the 2022 migration season

Whales, which can reach 50 feet and 100,000 pounds, come to the Sunshine State each year to give birth in warmer waters.

“The theory is that calves have less fat,” Knowlton said. “(Mothers) don’t feed when they are there, so they have to be in good shape to come down, but they lose a lot of weight in the process. When they come back to the north, the mothers are usually quite skinny but the calves are beautiful and fat. “

Of the more than three dozen visual sightings in the southeast this migration season, nine mother-pup pairs have been counted. They include:

  • Slalom: The 39-year-old grandmother was seen off the coast of South Carolina on December 2 with her sixth calf documented. It has been 11 years since she last gave birth.
  • Snow cone: Snow Cone was seen in Georgia on December 2 with its second known calf. The 17-year-old mother is entangled in a rope, despite several unraveling efforts by researchers. She lost her calf last year following a collision with a ship.
  • Mantis: Mantis appeared off Georgia on December 10 with her documented seventh calf. She is 36 years old.
  • Braces: The 24-year-old woman was spied off Florida on December 16 with her second known calf.
  • Silt: The silt was spotted off Florida on December 16 with its fifth known calf. She is 34 years old.
  • Arpeggio: The 25-year-old mom was seen Dec. 10 off the coast of South Carolina with her documented third calf.
  • Derecha: This female was sighted in New Smyrna Beach with her documented fifth calf on December 18. She is at least 28 years old.
  • Whale # 3430: This unnamed mom was sighted by the Florida aerial survey team as well on December 18. She is 18 years old and her second known calf.
  • Tripelago: This female was observed on December 26 off the Georgian coast. At 26, this is her fifth calf.

Whales are identified by the white spots on their skin, which form distinctive patterns that contrast vividly with their dark skin.

“If you take a picture of a right whale, it’s cataloged. It’s uniquely identifiable by what we call calluses,” Pitchford said.

This December 2, 2021 photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in a fishing rope and sighted with a hatchling in the waters near Cumberland Island , Georgia (Georgia Department of Natural Resources / NOAA Permit # 20556 via AP)

The white color comes from crustaceans that inhabit their rough, callused skin.

North Atlantic right whales can be found anywhere from Newfoundland to Florida. They spend a large part of their time immersed, so their life remains a bit of a mystery.

“So they’re hard to study, but there’s a huge effort from Canada to North Carolina to Florida to study them and add to what we know,” Pitchford said.

Identify a North Atlantic Right Whale with These 5 Steps

It is illegal to come within 500 meters of a North Atlantic right whale.

“If there are any questions, it’s probably a good idea to save and give them more space than they already have,” said Julie Albert, right whale conservation program coordinator. of the North Atlantic Marine Resources Council.

The rule applies whether your boat is moving or not.

Off the coast of South Carolina, the spectacle was welcome when researchers recently spotted Slalom, a 39-year-old North Atlantic veteran right whale, mother of five previous calves, on November 24, 2021, while 'she was swimming with her last offspring,

However, if you can stay a safe distance and film the animal, Albert said there are five physical characteristics to look for to determine if it is a North Atlantic right whale:

  1. Look at the skin: They have black skin with rough white spots on their heads.
  2. Do you see a dorsal fin? If so, it is not a right whale. They don’t have a fin on their back.
  3. Inspect the tail: The tail of right whales is black on both sides.
  4. Take a look at their fins: North Atlantic right whales have stocky pectoral fins which, like their tails, are also black on both sides.
  5. Does it go up to breathe? Take a look at their beaks. North Atlantic right whales shoot water out of their V-shaped vents. The beaks appear to go in two directions. “No other whale around here does that,” Albert said.

Learn to spot whales:

Julie Albert will be giving an outdoor lecture at the Marine Discovery Center on January 20 at 7 p.m. Registration is not required. Just introduce yourself!

520 Barracuda Boulevard in New Smyrna Beach.

Report North Atlantic whale sightings

There are three ways to report sightings:

  • Coastguard radio: In a boat? Call the Coast Guard on Channel 16.
  • Call NOAA: 877-942-5343
  • Call the Marine Resources Council hotline: 888-97-WHALE
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