photo by Allison Henry/NOAA, courtesy the National Marine Sanctuaries
I have not had much opportunity to visit the beach this winter, and I still have never seen a North Atlantic right whale in the water near our home in northern Florida. But at least there was a chance this year.
While I’ve been keeping an eye out for right whales for years, demographics have long worked against me. The whales are among the world’s most endangered animals – there are only an estimated 450 left – and the ocean is a big place. But right whales come to northern Florida’s Atlantic coast between December and March to give birth to their calves and to nurse them for some time after. At least, they usually do. Last year, researchers and conservationists were startled to report that no one had spotted a single calf. The news was a disaster for a species already struggling to maintain its numbers in the face adult whale mortality due to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
But 2019 has brought good news. As of mid-February, observers have spotted seven right whale calves. This is not only a relief after last season’s no-show, but also represents an increase from the five calves spotted the season prior. “I’m grateful for every new calf discovered,” Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, told The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Unfortunately, even though the calf sightings are a relief, they do not mean that right whales’ future is anything like secure. Katie Jackson, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, explained to the News-Journal that even maintaining the right whale population’s current numbers would require 16 to 18 new calves per year. Seven calves is still well below this threshold, even if it represent movement in the right direction.
Female right whales in good health should deliver a calf every three or four years, but those intervals have stretched significantly for the last decade or so. Scientists have speculated about why whales have calves less frequently these days, and several factors likely contribute. Encounters with humans and their vessels, even when they aren’t deadly, can stress an animal in ways that affect its health. And the whales’ food supply, especially in the Canadian Maritimes, may be diminishing, which makes conception less likely. Signs are positive, however, that the whale’s food supply may be bouncing back in Canada and New England, where right whales like to feed. The governments of both Canada and the U.S. have taken steps to try to protect the whales’ preferred North Atlantic feeding grounds.
Interestingly, the right whales have ventured farther south than usual this year during calving season. The critical calving habitat has typically been defined as the stretch of U.S. coastline between Cape Fear, North Carolina and Cape Canaveral, Florida. This year, however, mother-calf whale pairs have been spotted as far south as Vero Beach. This behavior is not unprecedented, but it is somewhat unusual.
The whales are elusive, so the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages the public to alert them if they spot one (with or without a calf). Observers are required to stay at least 500 feet away for the whale’s safety, though the whale’s distinctive V-shaped spout helps make identification at a distance easier. Some enterprising conservationists with the proper permits also have found success in employing drones and other technology to allow for better whale-spotting.
Since whale gestation is about 12 to 13 months, many of this season’s whales were likely conceived around the end of 2017. That was a disastrous year for the whale population, so it’s nice to know that at least some good came out of it. The whales fared much better in their northern habitats in the summer of 2018 than in the seasons immediately previous, so perhaps we will see an equal or better number of calves next year.
Maybe, eventually, I’ll even get to see one in the wild.