SAVANNAH, Ga. With three babies already confirmed and another two possible, the right whale calving season off the coasts of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina is shaping up to be a good one.
"It's good to have moms and calves early because then we know we're going to have some," said Tricia Naessig, right whale survey coordinator for the Wildlife Trust.
Naessig is among researchers who fly aerial surveys as teams, looking for right whales along the Southeast coast from December through March. Her team tentatively identified the fourth and fifth deliveries Thursday off the coast of Georgia. The third baby was confirmed Tuesday off the Altamaha Sound. The other two were sighted Dec. 5 off northeastern Florida.
Researchers sometimes don't see babies until the end of December or early January.
By early this week, about 30 right whales had been sighted in Southeast U.S. waters, said Amy Knowlton, research scientist with the New England Aquarium.
Adult females migrate at this time from their summer feeding grounds off New England and Canada to give birth and nurse their young in warm, calm Southern waters.
North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered large whales, with only an estimated 400 remaining. But even that figure is good news because it was recently bumped up from 350.
"As we look at the population and had a lot of good calving years, there are juveniles added to the population," Naessig said. "The population is still obviously not out of the woods."
Whale researchers have also been cheered this season by the return of Yellow Fin, an animal spotted off the Georgia coast entangled in fishing gear in late 2004. Scientists, including a team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, helped free the whale on New Year's Eve.
"She's looking in good shape," Naessig said.
The first two mother whales confirmed this season also have a known history.
"One is named Half Note and one is Arpeggio," said Clay George, DNR wildlife biologist. "Both calved last in 2006. Both lost their calves during that season."
One calf drowned in gill net gear off Jacksonville, an incident that precipitated a ban on that kind of fishing.
"The other we don't know what happened," George said.
But it's heartening to scientists that these two females were able to give birth again just two years later. The right whale gestation period is 12 months, and the animals need sufficient nutrition in their feeding grounds off New England to maintain their fertility.
Last year, 22 right whale calves were born. The record for a season is 31. The number of births varies drastically from year to year, Naessig said.
"A good year is any calves," she said.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.