Until last week, there had been only two confirmed sightings of endangered Atlantic right whales off the Gulf Coast of Florida. On Monday, scientists spotted a mother and calf near Siesta Key in Sarasota County, an area where the rare whale species hadn’t been seen in 43 years.
There are only an estimated 300 Atlantic right whales. They nearly were hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries. The whales spend most of the year in the Atlantic Ocean off New England and Canada. In the winter, they swim south to Georgia and the Atlantic coast of Florida to birth their calves.
The only other confirmed sightings of right whales off the Florida coast were in spring 2004 off Panama City Beach and in March 1963 off Longboat Key.
The dark-colored mother and calf seen Monday are thought to be the same whales spotted off Corpus Christi, Texas, in January, said scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The calf is identifiable by propeller scars on its back.
Biologists think the whales are healthy and will find their way back to the Atlantic.
They weren’t as sure about the two whales seen off Panama City Beach two years ago.
“Right whales don’t typically go into real warm water,” said Barb Zoodsma, a NOAA biologist. “Being in the Gulf of Mexico in March and April, we knew they had to go south [to warmer water] before they could go north. But lo and behold, those animals made it out of there and later were seen where they were supposed to be.”
Whalers called them “right whales” because the animals frequented near-shore waters where they were easier to hunt than other species.
Right whales float after they are harpooned, making them easier to handle. They also have a lot of meat: 1 ton per foot of length versus a half-ton per foot in other species. That meant more blubber and oil per dead whale.
Federal law protects right whales as it does other endangered species. In the right whale’s case, however, authorities have taken the unusual step of making it illegal for vessels to get closer than 500 yards from a whale.
“People need to know that right whales are in the area for the next couple of weeks,” Zoodsma said. “They need to put that on their checklists of things they have to think about when operating vessels in that area.”
In addition to boat collisions, right whales can be killed by being entangled in fishing nets or lines, she said.
Right whales are darker than sperm whales and humpback whales, both of which are more commonly seen in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other differences: Right whales don’t have a dorsal fin, and they have white patches on their heads.
Source: Tampa Tribune
Image: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission