Wednesday, December 08, 2010

{Press} First right whale calf of the season sighted off Sapelo Island

Savannah Now | Mary Landers | December 7, 2010

"Biologists spotted the first baby whale of the North Atlantic right whale calving season Friday off Sapelo Island.

"The calf was swimming steadily alongside its mother and appeared healthy," said Clay George, natural resources biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Right whales are highly endangered with an estimated 350-450 remaining. They were hunted to near extinction for their blubber and baleen in the 18th and 19th centuries when they were the "right" whale to catch because they swam slowly and floated when dead.

Now they're the focus of an intense monitoring and protection effort. Biologists from the EcoHealth Alliance (formerly the Wildlife Trust) and the Georgia DNR fly aerial surveys looking for the animals off the Georgia coast from December through March. Similar efforts extend southward into the waters off Florida and northward to the waters off South Carolina. The waters off the Southeast are their only known calving grounds.

Friday's mother and calf were a bit of a surprise because they were the first whales spotted by the Georgia team this season.

"Usually, we will see some very pregnant looking-females before we sight the first calf of the season," said Patricia Naessig, who heads up the EcoHealth Alliance team.

The calf appeared to be at least a week or two old based on the growth of white sea lice on its head.

During aerial surveys, biologists take photos and make detailed records of the whales they see. They also alert mariners about right whale locations in an effort to reduce the risk of ships striking the animals. Right whales can grow to 70 tons and 55 feet long, but can still be hard for ships' captains to see when they rest at the surface.

The adult female, or cow, spotted Friday was identified tentatively as No. 1064. She's an adult of unknown age first documented in 1989. The calf is her fourth recorded baby.

"The mother and calf were definitely showing some body contact," Naessig said. "At one point, we observed the calf laying across the back of the mother."

Right whales can give birth every three years at most. They had a record showing in 2008/2009 with 40 calves sighted. Last season that number was down to 19.

"It's too early to make any predictions about this year's calf count," George said. "We don't know how many pregnant females are currently in southeast U.S. waters, as high winds have limited the amount of survey effort so far this season."

Naessig is optimistic.

"Hopefully, sighting a mother and calf so early in the season is a good sign that we will be seeing lots of calves in the Southeast this year," she said."

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