Each year from December through March a remarkable event takes place. North Atlantic right whales can be sighted in the warm, calm coastal waters off the Atlantic coast between Jacksonville and Sebastian Inlet, Fla. to give birth and nurse their calves. In the spring they head back home to feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Reaching lengths of up to 55 feet and weighing from 40 to 70 tons, some of the creatures come within a couple hundred yards of the beach. Mothers can be seen schooling newborn calves, while juvenile whales play nearby. One of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, North Atlantic right whales are mostly black with whitish patches on the head and belly. They have a graceful and deeply notched "fluke," or tail. Two blowholes on the top of its head give a distinctive V-shape to a right whale's spout.
Scientists estimate that there are only 490 right whales in existence, but thanks to a decade's work of volunteer whale watchers, that number is on the rise. Protection and stewardship of these mammoth creatures is essential.
In the early 1900s whalers, ironically, tagged them the "right whale" to kill. Residing in shallow coastal waters the whales stayed close to land and swam slowly. Easy to harpoon, they tended conveniently to float after they died, thanks high levels of blubber, which whalers turned into valuable oil. Even more valuable was the baleen from its upper jaw. A tough yet flexible material in long strips that was finely fringed, it was coveted for everything from buggy whips ( "I'm going to whale on you") to corset stays and umbrella ribs.
Living to about 60 years old, some right whales live as long as 100 years. The species faces natural threats from predators, large sharks and killer whales. However, about a third of right whale deaths are man-made: entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes are the top two causes.
Right whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To lessen the risk of collisions between whales and boats, federal law requires vessels 65 feet long and greater to slow to 10 knots or less in Seasonal Management Areas along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, including the calving and nursery area in the southeastern U.S.
Don't think you can get an up-close view. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials urge curious people to give the whales a little more space. Banners are flown at beaches to warn people to stay 500 yards away from the whales, which applies to watercraft or aircraft, including paddle boards and surfboards. Violations can result in civil or criminal penalties of up to $50,000 and a year in prison.
Right whales were among the first species added to the Endangered Species List, the numbers as low as 300 in 1994. Scientists armed with cameras and other research tools follow the whales carrying out observations that secure data on swim speed, behavior, and directional movement along with photo-identification of individual whales supplemented by aerial observations.
In Brevard County in central Florida there are 800 volunteers who work with the Marine Resource Council (MRC) calling in right whale sightings during calving season to a hot line that alerts nearby vessels that whales are in the area.
"Recent governmental action has slowed the speed of ships and the shipping lanes have been moved out of migratory paths of whales," said Julie Albert, the MRC's Coordinator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program. "We make sure Port Canaveral is aware of where the whales are. We also present a variety of classes and special events on how to recognize the whales, anything we can do to educate the public."
In past years scientists determined the interval between birthing of calves to be five or six years. Now, perhaps a sign the species is healthier, that time frame between calves for some females is down to three or three and a half years, according to Marineland Right Whale Project.
About 100 to 150 whales make the visit to Florida shores each year, according project. Calves are born at about 2,000 pounds and 15 feet long. They can't hold their breath long, so they and their mothers must spend more time at the surface while in Florida, hence the spectator opportunities.
"I've always been fascinated by whales," said Albert who moved to Florida in 1999. "It's special to see them in the wild. I'm a mother of three children so I get it. They have a mother's characteristics. Being tired and wanting to rest when you have to deal with toddlers who want to play. They're so gentle, yet they're so immense when you see them near surfers. They are truly wondrous creatures."
Photos courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission