Where Are The Right Whales? No Sightings in SE Atlantic

Critically endangered North Atlantic Right whales historically are spotted during winter in Atlantic waters off eastern shores of Florida, Georgia and SC.

There’s been an absence of sightings of North Atlantic Right whales in America’s southeast Atlantic waters this 2017-2018 calving season.

Based on historical research, pregnant female North Atlantic Right whales give birth and nurse their calves in the warmer coastal waters off the eastern shores of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina during winter. The calving season in this area is November through March each year.

Critically Endangered Species

The right whale has been protected for more than eight decades, beginning in 1935. Even so, few exist today, with estimates of only around 450 remaining in the world. Right whales are huge, reaching up to 55 feet long and weighing up to 70 tons, and were once a target of whalers for their oil and whalebone.

Aerial surveillance in past years has spotted the rare Right whales around northeast Florida waters near Amelia Island, and neighboring southeast Georgia.

North Atlantic Right Whales: Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Tim Cole, NEFSC, (archive May 2016)

Looking back at many years of data in southeastern waters, one of the heaviest concentrations of right whale sightings by researchers has been off the Atlantic coasts of FL, GA, and SC (see map below). This area has been called a nursery for the rarest large whale on the planet. Previous data has indicated the presence of mainly mother whales, their newborn calves, and some juveniles.

Critical Habitat, North Atlantic Right Whale Calving (Map credit: NOAA)

One Whale Spotted Off Florida’s West Coast

Under more historic patterns, the first right whales of a winter season typically begin to be spotted around mid-November. However, this winter season 2017/2018, the first Right Whale sighting in the South was recorded two months later, Jan. 15, 2018. And there’s another oddity.

The whale was spotted off Florida’s west coast in the Gulf near Panama City Beach — not in the more typical calving area off the east coast in Atlantic waters. It’s been around a dozen years (according to NOAA data, back in 2006), since a North Atlantic right whale has been recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. See NOAA Fisheries Facebook post below about this unusual sighting:

The first right whale of the survey season was spotted in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City Beach on Monday. Pregnant…

Posted by NOAA Fisheries Service on Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Then a week later, further south in the Gulf near Naples, FL another sighting occurred January 22, 2018, reportedly thought to be the “same juvenile right whale,” according to scientists, that had been spotted near Panama City Beach.

Researchers track the whales by both sea and air, seeking to monitor their movement and also help to prevent vessel strikes with the whales. Air surveillance of waters occurs between December 1 to March 31st. When whales are spotted, flight crews radio alerts to ships in the area.

Is Weather A Factor?

Reportedly, the lack of sightings to date this season is the longest period of zero right whale calf sightings in southeast Atlantic waters in about 30 years (since the collection of data, in-depth surveys began in 1989). However, on a more optimistic note, the lack of sightings might be due to some bad weather conditions. Fingers crossed this turns out to be the case (grounding air crews more than usual this season to date).

Distribution Patterns Changing?

In more recent years, data collected from passive acoustic recorders has contributed to improved insights about whale movements, shedding more light on their whereabouts. Recently released research by NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, suggests an emerging shift of distribution. Apparently, it is not clear what is causing changes in range expansion and distribution shifts. The research was published in November 2017, indicating:

“In the past researchers assumed the majority of the population migrated between calving grounds off northern Florida and Georgia in winter months and northern feeding grounds off New England and Canada in summer months, but the data reveals that not all of the population has an annual migration.” The study reportedly confirms that “Right whales use nearly the entire eastern seaboard during winter and move around a lot more then was previously thought.”

Mariners Beware!

Although they’re big in size, Right whales can be hard to spot from a boat in the water (apparently, one may only see a blow in the distance). If a whale surfaces near a boat, mariners must depart immediately at a slow speed. Boats are not supposed to approach Right whales and law dictates staying 500 yards away. The “Shipboard Right Whale Protection Program” was created with feedback from “ships’ masters and crews to provide a simple framework for reducing the risk of collisions between ships and Right whales,” according to NOAA.

Unusual Mortality Event (UME)

Sixteen North Atlantic right whales deaths — considered a very big number — occurred last year off the shores of Canada and America (12 Canadian, 4 American). See NOAA Fisheries’ website for more research and frequently asked questions about the North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event.

Unfortunately, commercial fishing net entanglements are one of the threats to this critically endangered species, along with vessel collisions. Other obstacles to their survival include “reproductive rate, habitat loss, disease and environmental contaminants,” according to the New England Aquarium, another organization studying this rare whale species. Their Right Whale Research Project began back in 1980.

Lawsuit Against US Government

Just announced in January 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the U.S. has sued the U.S. Department of Interior for better protection of right whales. Their argument is that not enough is being done to protect the whales, particularly with regard to the commercial lobster fishing industry.

How To Report Whale Sightings

Please report all Right whale sightings from Florida to North Carolina by calling 877-WHALE-HELP. Right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16 or through the WhaleAlert iPhone/iPad app.

MORE INFO FROM NOAA: “Mariners are urged to use caution and proceed at safe speeds in areas where right whales occur. U.S. Law (50CF 224.105) prohibits operating vessels 65 feet (19.8 meters) or greater in excess of 10 knots in Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) along the U.S. east coast. Mariners are also requested to route around voluntary speed reduction zones (Dynamic Management Areas—DMAs) or transit through them at 10 knots or less. Approaching right whales closer than 500 yards is a violation of federal and state law.”