Georgia on the front lines of right whale survival

After a long journey, whales are arriving off state’s coast

Credit: Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556

Credit: Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556

Clay George has spent much of the last 15 winters on a boat, scouring the waters between Charleston and Jacksonville for one of the rarest large whale species on the planet, the North Atlantic right whale.

While he surveys by boat, as many as four supporting aircraft look for whales while crisscrossing the ocean from North Carolina to northeast Florida.

In the 1980s, biologists discovered that Georgia’s coastal waters are at the heart of their calving grounds, George said, putting the state in the middle of the fight to save them from extinction.

“The species literally can’t recover unless they can come down here and calve safely,” George said.

The whales seemed to be making a comeback a decade ago. But man-made dangers are again taking a toll.

As a veteran wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, George said he does not like to sound alarmist. But he does not mince words in describing the animals plight.

“It’s extremely dire.”

In 2011, there were around 480 North Atlantic right whales, George said.

But today, there are just 336 left — the lowest population estimate for the species in nearly 20 years.

Experts say the sharp decline has been driven primarily by deadly vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Climate change is likely also contributing, said Peter Corkeron, a scientist who leads the whale research group at the New England Aquarium.

The massive whales are filter feeders that rely primarily on microscopic crustaceans for sustenance. But as human emissions of heat-trapping gases warm up the world’s oceans, the distribution of the organisms the whales depend on is shifting. And as the whales travel further afield in search of food, they are turning up in places with fewer protections from the threats posed by boat traffic and fishing equipment, Corkeron said.

The whales are arriving in the waters off of Georgia, South Carolina and Northeast Florida after journeying more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds near Canada and New England.

The first sightings this season began in November. But sightings typically peak in January, George said. The whales stay until late February or early March before making the journey back north. Federal and state authorities have urged boaters in the region to slow down to avoid collisions with the animals.

While they’re here, George and other researchers from across the region are watching intently for new calves.

Nine new calves have been identified so far. Earlier this month in the waters near Cumberland Island, a female named Snow Cone was seen entangled in fishing rope with her newborn calf in tow. And just this week, a mother named Tripelago was spotted with a calf off the Georgia coast.

Last year, 19 new calves were spotted, an improvement from 2017 to 2020, when just 22 calves were identified. Still, George said that births are being outpaced by deaths.

Also contributing to concerns about the species’ future is the shortage of breeding females. Of the estimated 336 North Atlantic right whales, less than 100 are breeding females. And they are calving less frequently than they used to, Corkeron said.

“They’re mammals, so the females really matter much more than we males do,” Corkeron said.

But George and Corkeron said there is reason for hope.

The whales have shown that they are resilient and can bounce back, if given the space to reproduce safely. It’s a matter of whether we, humans, are willing to protect them, Corkeron said.

“It’s doable — We just have to stop killing them and wrapping them up in fishing rope,” he said.