Catching up on Winter 2016

Whew! For those of you who have been paying attention to the subject of right whales in the news, you know that the past few months have kept researchers on their toes! Let's dive in and get everyone up to speed, first with the Southeast Season. Stay tuned for our Spring season update next!


Each winter, pregnant females (along with others) swim to the shallow waters off Florida and Georgia to give birth. To photo-document and to alert mariners to the presence of these particularly vulnerable mother and calf pairs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Sea To Shore Alliance, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Marineland Florida flew aerial surveys. Additionally, FWC, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Duke University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Florida Atlantic University, and NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center conducted research from vessels. Finally, Marine Resources Council had a team of volunteers searching for right whales from land. Pretty impressive list of teams, right?

Catalog #4094 and her one day old calf swim off the coast of Georgia. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

This year, the teams documented 14 calves between the first of December and the end of March. The first calves were discovered on December 10th and the last on February 17th. Four of the mothers were first timers including a precocious six-year-old whale, Catalog #4094 (right whales give birth to their first calf on average at 10 years of age; the youngest was five). There were also some older, experienced mothers such as Punctuation (#1281- at least 34 years old, seen with her eighth known calf) and #1233 (at least 42 years old, seen with her sixth calf). Overall, it was a quiet season with only 20 different whales identified (not including the calves) and no young juveniles seen. In the 2000’s, most of the younger juveniles were seen annually in the region, and the total number of whales documented ranged from 150 to 200. Quite a difference!

The general public had the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of a mother calf right whale without ever squeezing into a tiny plane like observers do, thanks to Clipper (#3450) and her calf’s two-day excursion into the Indian River near Sebastian, FL. In early February the pair made their way into the inner coastal water way where they remained for over 24 hours. Word spread and many people were able to see them from land. When they finally made their way out of the Indian River the following day, some lucky spectators were able to watch from the Sebastian Inlet Bridge as the pair passed under the bridge and back out into the ocean.

Clipper and her calf swim along the bank of the Sebastian Inlet. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

The joy of seeing young whales born into to the population was tempered by seeing two adult females in very poor health: Cherokee (#3670) and Quatro (#1968). Cherokee, born in 2006 to Piper (#2330), had first been seen with her injuries a year earlier- massive wounds on her head and tail from an entanglement, with a portion of her right lower lip torn off. She was seen in the Southeast just once in December 2015, looking thin and with extensive skin lesions.

Cherokee showing extensive damage to her right lip. Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.
Quatro was born in 1989. We're all quite familiar with her as she is a regular visitor of the major habitats. We were shocked when she was seen in January and February, emaciated and with baleen sticking out of her closed mouth. As there were no gross signs of injury visible, it is unknown what exactly happened to her, though the unusual protrusion of baleen hints that maybe something happened to her jaw or head. Sadly, the prognosis for both whales is poor.

Quatro was last seen on February 23, 2016. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

On a happier note, many of the mothers and calves successfully made their way to the northern feeding grounds this spring. Look for an update on them and other whales in our next blog.

-Philip Hamilton