photo courtesy NOAA/NMFS NOAA News
Conditions were nearly perfect last weekend for whale-watching from the windows of our vacation home on a beach in northeastern Florida. Low humidity, mostly bright skies and a nearly flat ocean let me scan all the way to the horizon.
The only thing missing was the whales – specifically, the North Atlantic right whales that use the temperate waters off the Southeast’s Atlantic beaches to birth and nurse their calves each winter.
It is not surprising that I didn’t spot any whales. I have never actually seen a right whale in person. The ocean is big, and there are only a small number of right whales – fewer than 500 total are known to scientists, of which perhaps 100 are reproductive-age females. I don’t spend enough time at the beach in winter to have a very good chance of seeing one, although I keep binoculars handy just in case.
All I saw this weekend were seabirds diving on fish behind the sandbar, a few Jones Act freighters making their way toward more southerly ports, and eventually a pair of dolphins that showed up to keep me company on my vigil, or maybe just to munch the mullet in the surf. Probably the latter.
My personal lack of whale-spotting success is not a problem. The real problem is that nobody has yet seen a right whale calf anywhere in the calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida this winter. Not a single one had been reported as of Sunday, even though we should be nearing the peak of a calving season that typically runs from December to March.
One possible reason is that there has been a lot of bad weather that restricted the number of survey flights researchers could launch to find the whales. The government shutdown at the beginning of this week also threatened to limit the number of research missions, as was the case with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flights during the last shutdown in 2013; with luck that will not re-emerge as a concern later in the season. Yet the absence of reports, even from observers on the highly populated shorelines, is still worrisome. The whales normally spend so much time close to people that they are sometimes called “urban whales.”
This worrying absence follows a disastrous 2017 for the right whales, in which only five calves were identified and one juvenile was found dead in Cape Cod Bay. In addition, 16 adult whales are known to have died (and researchers are determining whether a recently identified set of remains represents an additional death). Most of those deaths were in Canadian waters, and most were clearly attributable to human causes, either ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear.
The only sighting of a right whale anywhere in southern waters so far this year came about a week ago, when a couple spotted a solitary animal from their beachfront condominium in Panama City Beach, Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to this sighting, no right whales had been seen in the Gulf since 2006. In fact, scientists did not even know they visited the Gulf at all until 1963, when one was spotted off the beaches of Sarasota, Florida.
Just about the only encouraging news for these critically endangered whales is that they appear to be more widely traveled than most researchers had realized until recently. One known whale from North American waters was spotted off Norway; another was identified in 2009 cruising past the Azores. Of last year’s five births, two belonged to mothers who were not seen in the southeastern calving grounds at all. They were only seen later in the year, when mothers and calves were feeding together in Cape Cod Bay. That bay, in fact, has been the hot spot for right whale watching this winter, with more than a dozen sightings this month. Another whale was reported off Long Island.
Using undersea microphones to monitor whale calls, scientists have recently determined that the right whales seem to scatter across almost the entire length of the Atlantic coastline between Nova Scotia and Florida in the winter, before congregating between Massachusetts and Nova Scotia in spring and summer. Last year, a larger than normal number were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where mariners and regulators were unprepared to protect them and where most of the whale deaths occurred. Canadian officials are scrambling to put new rules in place to prevent similar carnage in 2018.
But just because we know some whales are present in places we don’t expect them to be doesn’t mean we know where all of the whales are, or how many even exist. We only know about the ones we can see and count. So perhaps there are more right whales than we know. Even if this is true, however, we can still be quite certain that there are not very many and that the species remains in serious trouble.
The ocean was beautiful on my stretch of beach on Sunday morning. But it would have looked even better with a couple of whales in it.