LETTER: Watch Out for Right Whales

Click on photo to watch a YouTube video on the endangered Right Whale.

December 6, 2013


Now that the air and water has finally cooled, trucks and boat trailers overrun the parking lot and roads around Cape Charles harbor — sure signs that the rockfish season is now in full swing. This time of year also marks the start of the North Atlantic right whale calving season which begins in November and runs through April. The whales are now migrating from their normal habitat in northeast U.S and Canada to the south coast of Georgia and Florida. NOAA Fisheries reminds boaters to be aware of these whales, and to take precautions to avoid collisions. There are fewer than 400 left, making them the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

The right whale got its name from northeast whalers who called it “the right whale” to hunt. These mammals had large amounts of blubber, were very slow swimmers, and once harpooned, tended to roll over and float, making them easy to strip and clean. Chapters 93-96 in Melville’s Moby Dick describe capturing the whale and the process of cutting the blubber into sections and preparing it for rendering.

Adult whales average 40-55 feet in length, can weigh up to 140,000 pounds, and may live up to 50 years. They spend the majority of their lives in the zooplankton- rich waters off northeastern U.S. and Canada. (Having no teeth, they mainly feed on copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids). In the fall of each year pregnant females migrate south to give birth to calves that are 10-15 feet long and weigh up to 1.5 metric tons. After birth, the calves drink mother’s milk for 8 to 17 months.

The coasts of Georgia and Florida are the only known calving areas for right whales, and NOAA wants to raise awareness of their migratory patterns and movement. The biggest issue is that, even as it would seem easy to spot something as big as a whale, in reality it is very difficult. They are dark, do not have dorsal fins, and swim just below the surface of the water. The only way is to be keenly aware of any changes in the texture of the water surface.


To offset the difficulty in spotting right whales, Cornell University has installed a series of smart buoys in heavy traffic areas along Stellwagon Bank and Cape Cod that listen for whale calls. Right whales make over twelve different calls, but these buoys listen for the basic “up call,” a type of “contact notice,” the whale uses letting others know it’s nearby. Frequent alerts let ship captains know where calls are detected, and when to slow down. For the rest of us south of the bank, old school piloting awareness is all we have to go on.

North Atlantic Right whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As an aside, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is enjoying its 40-year anniversary, and during this time has helped recover over 30 species, and protects over 2,140 listed species. In an effort to curb Right whale collisions, the federal Ship Reduction Strike Rule (backed by the ESA), requires any vessel 65 feet or greater to slow to 10 knots in described Seasonal Management Areas. Speed restrictions for our area are in place from November 1 to April 30. Federal law also prohibits any craft, sea or air, to approach within 500 yards of the whales. NOAA does fly over and create aerial surveys which are used to alert vessels of locations containing right whales. More information on the Strike Rule, as well migratory notices and maps, can be found at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike/.

It should be noted that vessels less than 65 feet are not regulated under the Ship Reduction Strike Rule, yet collisions have caused injury to the whales and expensive, sometimes catastrophic, damage to the boats. Recreational fisherman and boaters should remain aware of the whales, slow down and attempt to adhere to the speed standards in order to reduce the possibility of collisions. Whether or not this species remains viable depends on how we minimize deaths caused by interactions with humans. Protecting females during the migration period is paramount.

There’s no environmental slogan that’s been more mocked than “Save the Whales,” yet it endures because there’s a mystical “up call” between the whale and us, which Melville certainly understood: “What sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” Not everyone is a ship captain, or will be boating in the whale’s migratory path, but there are still things that can be done to support the last 400 of these mammals. My father, who passed away this summer, was a conservationist even before there was a term for it. I remember as a kid his requests that we donate to Greenpeace, Sierra Club, PEW, or World Wildlife Fund in lieu of birthday gifts. For many of us that just don’t need any more stuff this holiday season, a gift donation may be the best bet. Supporting groups such as Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, which since 1984 has freed more than 90 large whales from life-threatening entanglements with fishing gear, is a great way to help the right whale.

To report sightings of dead, injured or entangled whales, contact NOAA Fisheries at 1-877-WHALE-HELP or 1-877-433-8299.

Cape Charles

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One Response to “LETTER: Watch Out for Right Whales”

  1. Wayne Creed on December 12th, 2013 12:27 pm

    On December 3, the National Park Service found a pod of short-finned pilot whales stranded on the edge of the Florida Everglades National Park and notified NOAA Fisheries, the lead coordinating agency for responding to marine mammal strandings. Of the 51 whales originally stranded, 22 have died and 29 are still missing. As of 3 p.m. December 9, the Coast Guard conducted a flight search of the lower Keys area and did not see additional whales nearby. A rescue team including NOAA biologists conducted full sampling of the 11 additional deceased whales on Snipe Point to determine the cause of death. The breakdown of animals at Snipe Point was a mix of females and calves. It is difficult to speculate what has happened to the remaining 29 whales, but the search continues. The U.S. Coast Guard continued to search for the stranded pilot whales during the weekend with no luck. Around 1 p.m. Sunday, a recreational fisherman first spotted the whales, and then the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission verified 11 dead pilot whales on Snipe Point in the lower Keys about 6 miles north of Sugar Loaf Key. These were part of the original pod of 51 stranded pilot whales.