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The right news for the right whale
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Last week’s UNSUCCESSFUL effort to free a right whale from a tangle of ropes off Charleston overshadowed some good news for the species as a whole.

“The optimism we’ve been feeling involves the number of calves that have been born this year, which is now up to 16 documented individuals,” says Brad Winn, senior wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division of Ga. DNR.

“In the past, we have seen 4-5 year intervals in breeding cycles for right whales,” says Monica Zani, Assistant Scientist New England Aquarium, which administers the master database of the right whale population.

“This year, we’ve seen some females that are calving after only a three year interval,” Zani says. “This is great news for such a small population where every calf that is born is crucial.”

Now down to about 350 individuals, the North Atlantic right whale population typically comes to warm waters off the Georgia coast in late winter to give birth.

“The area off the Georgia and North Florida coast is primarily frequented by pregnant females and occasionally juveniles that come down,” says Winn. “The animals that come here are essentially fasting when they’re here. Then they go up to the rich feeding waters in the Bay of Fundy, Cape Cod area.”

There’s a discrepancy in that some of the females that show up off the Georgia coast are not seen in the summering ground off New England and Canada.

“There are individuals that periodically show up here in the calving grounds that have not been seen in the summering grounds, which leads to the speculation that there’s an additional summering ground not yet identified,” Winn says.

“As large and charismatic as these animals are, it’s highly unusual that there may be an area we’re not familiar with.”

In this high tech era, whalespotting generally involves good old fashioned eyesight and a quick finger on the shutter. Survey teams fly at low altitudes until they spot right whales, then bank to take photos to identify individuals.

“There have been 17 whales spotted this year that have not yet been positively identified,” Winn says. “Some of that involves the quality of photos. They’re not matching with those known in the database.”

Scientists identify individual whales primarily through their markings.

“Each individual is different -- it’s kind of like a thumbprint,” Winn says. “Each whale is given a number when they surface. You can then track them over the years to see which ones return and which don’t.”

Winn says the only bright side to having such a small population of right whales is that they’re easier to document.

“There are so few right whales left in the world that we can have a comprehensive database on individuals,” he says. “We know them from the summering areas off Canada and Maine, and also down here in the calving grounds.”

Survey teams are composed of scientists and biologists from the New England Aquarium, Wildlife Trust, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Florida Marine Research Institute. They cover individual sections of the right whale’s critical habitat, flying the same path every day of the week from December through March, depending on weather, from St. Augustine, Fl. To Sapelo Island, Ga.

For several days last week, rescue teams tried to untangle a right whale from some buoy ropes off the South Carolina coast.

The search, called off because the whale swam into rough seas, was coordinated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

“We are not giving up on attempts to save this whale, however we have decided for now that it is best to postpone disentanglement operations,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, lead veterinarian for NOAA Fisheries and the head of the nation’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

“As long as the tracking device stays on the whale and functions correctly, we will continue to monitor his location and assess the situation,” she said.

“As you can imagine we are very disappointed.”