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Researchers Haven't Found A Single Endangered Right Whale Calf Yet This Season

Feb 28, 2018
Originally published on March 2, 2018 11:21 am

On winter days when the weather is good, a research plane takes off from St. Simons, a barrier island in Georgia. Pilots from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fly straight lines out and back along Georgia's Atlantic coast, covering hundreds of miles of open ocean. Riding in the plane, surveyors are glued to the window scanning the water for North Atlantic right whales.

There are only about 450 of the big, rotund whales left on Earth. The whaling industry once decimated the species. While they've been protected for decades now, the endangered whales are still struggling, and this has been a terrible season for them.

The whales spend most of their time around New England and Canada, but starting in November pregnant whales and some others head south to the warmer water off the coast of Georgia and North Florida. This is where they spend the winter and begin to raise their calves.

But this year, no one saw any whales until the end of January. And most of the way through the calving season, there still aren't any calves.

So the aerial survey team keeps looking.

"On really nice days, you're looking out as far as possible, just for any disturbance at the surface," Melanie White says as she leans into the window of the plane, watching for whales. White is the Right Whale Conservation Project manager for Sea to Shore Alliance, the nonprofit that employs the surveyors.

She sees dolphins, sea turtles, rays and molas, which are big pancake-shaped animals also known as ocean sunfish. But rarely does the aerial survey team see a right whale. They've spotted just a handful this winter.

Last year the numbers were low, too. They've been trending down since 2011. But no calves at all is a low for recent years.

"This is the first time since I have worked with right whales that that has ever happened," said Barb Zoodsma, who has worked on right whales with NOAA since the early-1990s.

She says of the 450 or so right whales alive, fewer than 100 are breeding females.

"Ninety-four," she says. "That's not good. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that's a bad situation."

Zoodsma says the females are dying young and they're having calves less often.

Climate change may be having an impact on their food.

On top of that, 17 right whales died last year. Several of those were hit by ships, or got caught in fishing gear. Another was found dead earlier this year, tangled in fishing gear off the coast of Virginia.

"The rope can cut through their bodies and keep them from being able to feed. It creates drag, and they basically just waste away," says Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

George cuts the fishing gear off the whales when he can. He says more than 80 percent of the whales have scars from getting entangled at one point or another.

"The right whales are at a point where more are dying than are being born," George says. "That's just not sustainable long-term."

After hours searching from the air, Carolyn O'Connor from Sea to Shore Alliance finally spots something. "Bingo," she says.

The plane veers into a tight circle.

"I feel like there's a lot of whales here," White says.

There are five adults. One of them breaches. It slaps its tail. The whales are socializing. But still no calves.

O'Connor says it's exciting every time they see a whale, but "it's extremely disheartening and kind of scary to not have a calf yet this late in the season. It's not a good thing."

They'll keep looking for them, though, for another couple of weeks.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the most endangered of all whale species is the North Atlantic right whale. They were decimated by hunting, and only about 450 remain. Even though they've been protected for decades now, the species is fighting for survival. And as Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports, this has been a terrible season for them.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: On winter days when the weather is good, a research plane takes off from St. Simons Island in Georgia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, we're departing momentarily.

SAMUEL: The pilots from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fly straight lines out and back along Georgia's Atlantic coast, covering hundreds of miles of open ocean. Riding in the plane, surveyors are glued to the windows, scanning the water for whales.

MELANIE WHITE: On really nice days you're looking out as far as possible just for any disturbance of the surface.

SAMUEL: Melanie White works on the aerial survey team for a nonprofit called the Sea to Shore Alliance.

WHITE: But we'll see dolphins and turtles out here.

SAMUEL: But they haven't seen many whales this year. North Atlantic right whales are big, round, black whales. They spend most of their time around New England and Canada. But starting in November, pregnant whales and some others head south to the warmer water off the coast of Georgia and North Florida. This is where they spend the winter and begin to raise their calves. Only this year the aerial observers didn't see a single whale until the end of January, and they still haven't found any calves.

BARB ZOODSMA: This is the first time since I've worked with right whales that that has ever happened.

SAMUEL: Barb Zoodsma has worked on right whales with NOAA since the early 1990s. She says of the 450 or so right whales alive, fewer than a hundred are breeding females.

ZOODSMA: That's not good. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that's a bad situation.

SAMUEL: Zoodsma says the females are dying young and they're having calves less often, and climate change may be having an impact on their food. On top of all that, 18 right whales have died in the last year. Several of those were hit by ships or got caught in fishing gear.

CLAY GEORGE: The rope can cut through their bodies and keep them from being able to feed. It creates drag. And they basically just waste away.

SAMUEL: Clay George is a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. And he cuts the fishing gear off the whales when he can.

GEORGE: The right whales are at a point where more are dying than are being born. That's just not sustainable long-term.

SAMUEL: After hours searching from the air, Carolyn O'Connor from Sea to Shore Alliance finally spots something.

CAROLYN O'CONNOR: Bingo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Jackpot.

O'CONNOR: Bingo. I feel like there's a lot of whales here.

SAMUEL: The plane veers into a tight circle. There are five adults. One of them breeches. It slaps its tail. The whales are socializing.

O'CONNOR: I think there was some belly-to-belly contact there.

SAMUEL: O'Connor says it's exciting every time they see a right whale. But this late in the winter, she says, it's kind of scary to not have found any calves. They'll keep looking for them, though, for another couple of weeks. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel, St. Simons Island, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.