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Rare whales absent from South Carolina during winter calving season alarms researchers
January 19, 2018 - By: - In: In The News - Tags: , - Comments Off on Rare whales absent from South Carolina during winter calving season alarms researchers

Charleston Post and Courier
January 19, 2018

By Bo Petersen

No newborn right whales have been spotted so far off South Carolina or the rest of the Southeast coast, alarming researchers who already fear the species might be about to go extinct.

At the height of the winter calving season, no adults have been seen either, except for a lone whale off Panama City, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico where they rarely venture.

“This is the longest we’ve gone into the calving season without seeing a right whale since systematic surveys began in the early 1990s,” said Allison Garrett of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Horrendous” weather might well be a factor, disrupting survey flights and possibly the whales’ behavior, she said.

Whales haven’t been spotted from any of the Atlantic Ocean beaches in mid-Florida where there usually are regular sightings. Survey flights have spotted five humpback whales.

The apparent absence of the right whales follows the 2016-2017 winter during which only three female and calf pairs were spotted — in contrast to 39 pairs in the peak year of 2009. Numbers have declined over the past four years to fewer than half the previous four years.

“I’m going from being the optimist I normally am to being pretty pessimistic about it,” Clay George, a wildlife biologist who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press.

Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, with fewer than 500 known to be alive, including only about 100 mature females. They are massive 40-ton creatures. Their two-plume breathing spray and the lack of a dorsal fin distinguish them from other whales.

They migrate south to calve each winter, so close to the East Coast that a mother and calf pair was spotted in 2005 in the breakers off Pawleys Island near Georgetown. The proximity to boating, fishing and shipping has become deadly.

Fourteen of the whales — which migrate between Northeast and Southeast coasts — were found dead in waters off Canada and Cape Cod last summer. Nearly all of them had been killed by strikes or entanglements, according to the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island, where the forensics took place.