First whales of season spotted off Georgia coast

Credit: Florida FWC, taken under NOAA permit No. 15488

Credit: Florida FWC, taken under NOAA permit No. 15488

A survey plane with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted a right whale and her new calf about 16 miles off Cumberland Island on Saturday.

They are the season's first sighting of North Atlantic right whales off the Georgia coast, one of only two known calving grounds for the endangered whales, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The mother, known by her identification number 2145, is 24 years old and has had four other calves, the last one documented in 2009.

Pregnant right whales swim more than 1,000 miles south each winter from their feeding grounds off Canada and New England to the warmer waters of Georgia and northeastern Florida, where they give birth.

Although the first sighting is usually earlier, biologist Clay George, the right whale research leader with Georgia DNR, said he isn't worried.

"It's still too early to tell how many calves will be born this season," he said. "January and February are the peak months for calving."

There are only about 450 right whales remaining, with only 10 calves documented last winter. The whales are big, slow and float when killed, which made them the "right" whales to hunt, according to the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. Commercial hunting stopped nearly 100 years ago, but the right whale population remains small.

Although it's rare for a boater to run in to a right whale, it has happened, DNR said, so it's important to be on the lookout. In the winter, the whales, which are as big as a school bus, sometimes swim slowly near the shore, just below the surface. Federal law prohibits approaching a right whale or remaining within 500 yards of one.

Georgia DNR works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Sea to Shore Alliance and others to conserve right whales.

In February, biologists with the wildlife agencies cut away more than 480 feet of rope from a 4-year-old whale off Wolf Island. According to Georgia DNR, more than 75 percent of right whales have scars from such entanglements.

If you see a dead, injured or entagled whale, call 1-800-272-8363 (in Georgia) or 1-877-942-5343 (region-wide).