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Right Whales Migrate into Georgia...

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Right Whales Migrate into Georgia/Florida Waters
Given good weather, the season's first flight to monitor North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Georgia and Florida will take off Saturday.

However, the imperiled whales apparently beat searchers to the punch.

A boater off Hilton Head Island, S.C., photographed the first mother and calf of the season on Nov. 27, said senior wildlife biologist Clay George of Georgia DNR's Nongame Conservation Section.

"We've received other reports of right whales offshore of Georgia and Florida, too," added George, the agency's lead researcher for North Atlantic right whales.

All of which puts the species' annual migration to its only known calving areas - along Georgia, northern Florida and South Carolina - right on time.

The bigger question for 2012-2013 is how many whales will come, and how many will be born.

Only seven calves were documented during the previous winter, and at least one of those died. Six calves marks a 10-year low for a population that numbers about 450 whales. The annual average over the past decade is closer to 20 calves. Totals for non-breeding whales spotted were also off in 2012: 61 compared to 120 in 2010-2011.

Those dips mirror lower counts the past three summers in the Bay of Fundy, a key foraging ground. Lower levels of copepod plankton in the bay may be a factor. Right whales are filter feeders, using bristle-like baleen in their mouths to sift tiny copepod prey from the surrounding ocean water.

George said it's impossible to predict how any calving season will go. Yet he is hopeful.

He points out that the flip-side to this year's lower calf counts is more females are available that could give birth this winter. "There are at least 75 females in the population that haven't calved since 2010. I think it could drift back to an average year."

With Georgia/Florida flights starting this weekend, and monitoring off South Carolina already underway, the picture for right whales this season will soon become clearer for researchers in the air and on the water.

Right Whale Q&A

Why so few? Historically, commercial whaling decimated North Atlantic right whale populations. Slow, found close to shore and rich in blubber, these whales were considered the "right whale" to hunt. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are now the prime threats.

Have we seen this before? A similar decrease in calving was documented in the late 1990s when only 11 calves were born during a three-year period.

What's it like to see a right whale? Awesome and unusual. George said that even on the water, so much of the animal is below the surface and unseen that what is seen often doesn't look like an animal. But, when a whale approaches the boat, its size - adults grow up to 55 feet long - is more apparent. "It's kind of mind-boggling," George said. Ditto when one rolls over and looks at researchers with a basketball-sized eye! (FYI: By federal law, only permitted researchers can approach closer than 500 yards.)

Watch our Flickr site for photos of right whales seen this season!