SAVANNAH, Georgia — The first right whale sighting of the season was a twofer.
Flying 16 miles east of Cumberland Island on Dec. 13, researchers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted not only the first whale but also the first calf.
The mother whale has no nickname, unlike many right whales. She's just number 2145, identified by the unique pattern of white markings on her head. Researchers do know, though, the 24-year-old female is an experienced mama, having given birth at least four times before.
Her calf joins a population estimated at about 450 individuals, making North Atlantic right whales among the most highly endangered of the large whales. Right whales were hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s because their slow-moving, shore-hugging habits and tendency to float when dead made them the "right" whale to kill.
Right whales feed in the waters off New England and Canada in the summer, eating tiny crustaceans they filter through their baleen plates. In winter, pregnant females and some juveniles head south to their only known calving area off the Georgia and Florida coasts. Except for the calves, of course, these bus-sized animals don't eat while they're in Southeastern waters.
Right whales had a less-than-stellar calving season last winter with only 10 babies — about half the average number — documented in Georgia and Florida. One of those calves is believed to have died before the migration back north, though a previously undocumented calf was also seen east of Cape Cod in May. Summertime also didn't give whale researchers much cause to be optimistic.
For the bulk of the season there were few whales in the Bay of Fundy, where they should be feeding, said Clay George of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. That could mean a below average calving season if females didn't get the nourishment they need.
"Whales have to fatten up before they can go into estrus and carry a calf to term," George said.
George and his colleagues have already completed their pre-season disentanglement training so they'll be prepared for the dangerous work of assisting whales tangled up in fishing gear.
Last February they used those skills to cut heavy fishing line, plastic rope really, from a 4-year-old male whale east of Wolf Island near Darien. More than 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from rope entanglements, and almost 60 percent have been entangled twice, often with gillnet and trap/pot gear that is left to soak in the water unattended for long periods.
The other big threat to right whales is from ship strikes. A federal regulation made permanent in 2013 requires that ships 65-feet-long or more travel at speeds of 10 knots or less seasonally in areas where right whales feed and reproduce, as well as along migratory routes in-between. In the mid-Atlantic area, which includes Savannah, the 10-knot speed restrictions extend out to 20 nautical miles around major ports.
Researchers conduct aerial surveys off the coast from Savannah to Cape Canaveral during the calving season, typically from December to April. Their work in the air is supplemented by Georgia DNR work from boats.
George and his colleagues get DNA samples from as many calves as possible by shooting into the animals a hollow-tipped dart that retrieves a tissue sample the size of a pencil eraser. This season they will also be trying a new type of satellite tagging that researchers hope will stay on the whales for several weeks.
"As much as we know from the sightings, we don't know what they're doing in between, how they use the habitat on a day-to-day basis," George said.
Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com