Chiminea wasn’t lolling. The young right whale was swimming north, apparently at good speed, when it was spotted earlier this month just off the Stono inlet. It was the first confirmed sighting of the perilously endangered species in nearly three years along the South Carolina coast.
That’s more alarming than it sounds. No whales had been sighted because the survey flight that spotted Chiminea hasn’t been flown here since grant funding cutbacks curtailed it in 2013. The only reason the Georgia-based crew flew up this way is that so few mother-and-calf pairs have been spotted farther south they decided to go looking for signs of them here.
“Each of the survey teams has had a handful of sightings, but many of them have been resightings of the same animals. It’s still early in the season, so we’re hoping things will pick up, but water temperatures are above average, which has been correlated with lower right whale sightings,” said Cynthia Taylor, Sea to Shore Alliance research scientist.
Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, 40-ton creatures whose curious two-plume breathing spray and the lack of a dorsal fin distinguish them from other whales. They are so massive and supple that one boater who has seen them described the moment as heart-stopping.
The whales were all but wiped out by commercial whaling. They have turned the corner toward potential recovery from a low of fewer than 300 to more than 400, thanks to awareness and conservation efforts. But calving numbers have dropped in recent years, and the whales remain so imperiled that every one alive is considered vital to the survival of the species.
Ship strikes, line entanglements and noise pollution are among the biggest threats. The dark color, the lack of a fin piercing the surface and a tendency to swim slowly along the surface make them hard to spot and easy to strike. They navigate and communicate by vocal echoes.
They now migrate across major shipping channels, through waters that might be opened up to oil and natural gas seismic testing and drilling and across an area the U.S. Navy uses for sonar and other training.
For years, the whales were thought to linger and calve only in waters off southern Georgia and Florida. But individual sightings and then survey flights confirmed mothers with new calves in South Carolina waters. In the past two years, just as the survey flights that warned shipping interests ended, NOAA included the offshore as part of those critical breeding grounds.
Sightings off South Carolina now depend on private reports and often can’t be verified. A fishing guide spotted what he believed was a right whale off Georgetown in October — early for the migration season — but no one was in place to confirm it.
An individual right whale can be identified by the distinct pattern of different-colored flesh on its head. Chiminea is a 6-year-old whale of undetermined sex. Just three days before the sighting earlier in January, about five miles out from Folly Beach, the whale had been spotted off Jacksonville, Fla., headed north.
Researchers have determined that a number of juvenile right whales will accompany pregnant females on the winter migration.
“The question, even for us, is why do they come down here in the first place,” said Melanie White, the Sea to Shore Georgia survey flight leader. They might be following the adults out of curiosity or just to roam. They might be on scouting trips to learn the route for future migrations.
But they don’t appear to stay long. The type of plankton they feed on isn’t nearly as abundant off the Southeast as it is off the Northeast, where they spend the rest of the year. In fact, the pregnant females aren’t thought to feed much or at all while calving.
After four years of increasing numbers of mother-and-calf pair sightings, only 11 were spotted in 2013-2014 — a number so alarmingly low that the 14 pairs spotted in 2014-2015 whales was something of a relief for researchers.
This year, the Georgia survey team had flown 16 flights before the South Carolina flight and spotted only three mother and calf pairs. As a comparison, 17 distinct pairs were spotted in total from December to March.
“With three more months of potential sightings for us here on the calving grounds, I highly suspect more sightings will move in,” White said. “We shall see.”