#9 A 'First' We Would Like to Avoid

One of the great aspects of being new to right whale aerial surveys is that everything I am seeing down here is novel for me, especially this early in the season. And so, I was pretty excited to spot the first mother-calf pair of the season in our area during our December 22nd survey. Jess estimated the calf to be about 2 or 3 days old, based on it's size, lack of cyamid coverage and light grey coloration.

The coastal waters of Florida and Georgia are the only known calving grounds for the North Atlantic right whale and as such, this area has been designated as a Critical Habitat Area by NOAA. This area is also busy with vessel traffic, including freighters, tankers, dredges, naval ships and LOTS of recreational boats. Thus, as we circled the mother-calf pair so Jess could photograph the pair for identification purposes, we all kept a look-out on three nearby recreational boats.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Jessica Taylor
Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.

Two of these boats were stationary and well beyond the 500 yards mandatory approach limit established by NOAA in 1997, but the third vessel was underway and had changed course a number of times. All attempts to hail this vessel on marine channel 16 to warn them of the nearby whales failed and we watched with increasing dismay as the vessel headed straight toward the pair! Fortunately, the recreational boat did not hit either mother or calf, but they were definitely too close for comfort. NOAA has established several regulations to reduce ship strikes in this area, one of which is that vessels 65 ft or longer must travel at 10 knots or less. However, it is strongly recommended that smaller boats also slow down and post a look out while traveling through the calving grounds. Also, if they monitored VHF Ch 16 then perhaps we could avert future violations of the 500 yard closest approach rule - it sure is a 'first experience' I would prefer never to witness!



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