Friday, November 27, 2009

'Mystery' whale dubbed Palmetto

By Bo Petersen | The Post and Courier | November 27, 2009

"The right whale Palmetto swims with a calf off Sapelo Island, Ga., earlier this year. A group of elementary school students from Sumter beat out marine scientists to choose a name for the migratory whale.

A mysterious, huge right whale with a distinct white knob on her head haunts the Lowcountry coast every few winters. That habit and the knob have given her a name: Palmetto.

It's right whale season again, the time of year when the rarest of the ocean's biggest creatures move south from their feeding grounds to calve along the Southeast from South Carolina to Florida. Pairs of whales already have been spotted off Murrells Inlet and Savannah.

"They are around," said Dianna Schulte, Wildlife Trust survey team leader. The aerial team flies out of Mount Pleasant under grants paid partly by the State Ports Authority. The team is tracking the whales and gauging the effectiveness of a controversial new federal rule that slows down large ships near the coast during the whale season.

Last year, the critically endangered species had a record breeding year in the Southeast -- 39 calves were spotted by aerial surveys. Off South Carolina, 121 individual whales were spotted, nearly a third of the known population. Fewer than 400 are known to exist, a number so perilously low that not only are the creatures critically endangered, but researchers consider every living whale vital to the survival of the species.

The New England Aquarium recently named the whale Palmetto at the urging of the students at Alice Drive Elementary School in Sumter. Last year, the students set off a minor controversy in the General Assembly when they wanted the whale named as the "state marine animal." A compromise was reached when the whale was designated the state migratory marine mammal and the bottlenose dolphin was given the "state marine mammal" designation.

While studying the whales, the students were wowed to find a photograph of Palmetto that looked like she had the state symbol tree on the back of her head. They competed for the designation against names submitted by research scientists. The aquarium catalogues individual whales and names them as a personal touch.

"It's kind of cool how she has the sign of the palmetto," said fifth-grader Demarea Edmonds. The knobs are callouses filled with tiny, crustacean "whale lice" that turn them white. These "callosities" are as individual as fingerprints.

The right whale is a 40-ton, creature as long as a basketball court is wide. Whalers nearly wiped it out in the North Atlantic in the 19th century. Deadly ship strikes, fishing line entanglements and potentially deafening noises such as sonar threaten the whales. Palmetto now carries a scar from an apparent ship strike last year.

The whales travel just offshore in areas so heavily trafficked that one conservationist describes them as essentially an urban creature. Coming within 500 yards of a right whale is illegal, and conservationists urge boaters to stay clear.

Palmetto has fascinated researchers. As a young whale, she virtually disappeared for seven years until she was spotted in the Southeast in 1996 after giving birth to her first known calf. In 2005, she was spotted rolling just behind the breakers off Pawleys Island; a newborn was with her. Last year, she was spotted with a calf off Hilton Head Island.

But in between births, she seems to disappear again."

"She's often not seen when she's up north with her calf. She's a bit of a mystery whale," said Philip Hamilton, New England Aquarium research scientist."

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