Endangered Whales in Area
February 1, 2013 by Kim
Seeing a whale in its natural environment can feel like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But during the next few months, residents and visitors to the North Carolina coast may have multiple opportunities to spot one.
During a girls weekend at Topsail Beach, a few early risers got an experience of a life time when they spotted whales about 100 yards offshore.
On any given day from November through March and April, we could have right and humpback whales off of our coast. Marine biologists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington have said that they do not have a sense of how many are offshore currently but that they do know that this is an important time when whales are moving through the waters.
Neither humpback nor right whales live in North Carolina waters on a consistent basis. Both species are migratory, spending their summers in cooler, northern-hemisphere waters and then travelling to warmer, subtropical seas, where they mate, calve and spend the winter. That travel cycle places the giant mammals – particularly the North Atlantic right whale – near beaches throughout the Cape Fear region for roughly five months out of the year. It was our understanding was that right whales migrated in the fall and migrated back up in the spring, but now we’re learning that right whales may stay along the coast, and move past the coast, throughout the winter.
Though both species may be nearby during the same time period, humpback and right whales are fairly easy to tell apart. Humpback whales can be identified by their long, white fore-flippers, while right whales are characterized by V-shaped water spouts, broad, flat backs and lumpy patterns on their heads, known as callosities.
Each species has been spotted off nearby beaches in recent weeks. Humpback whales have been confirmed in the waters near Topsail Beach, and right whales have been seen swimming past Wrightsville Beach.
Both right and humpback whales are endangered, making it illegal to be within 500 yards – or 1,500 feet – of either. The right whale is one of the most critically endangered whales in the world, with NOAA estimating the global population at around 400.
The slow-moving mammal is particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, prompting NOAA to partner with the Coast Guard in a project known as Operation Right Speed, a five-month period during which vessels of a certain size are required to cruise more slowly.
From Nov. 1 to April 30, regulations require vessels 65 feet or longer to operate at speeds 10 knots or less in designated right whale migration routes and calving grounds. Those designated routes bubble along sections of the East Coast, including a particularly large corridor that extends from Wilmington past Savannah, Ga.
The speed reduction regulations, in effect since December 2008, are a protective measure, designed to give both whales and ship operators more time to notice and avoid each other – especially around the entrances to deepwater ports, like Wilmington. Because right whales have no dorsal fin and swim close to the surface of the water, they can be particularly difficult to spot.
Many assume that due to their size right whales would be easy to see, but just a slight difference in the texture on the water’s surface is often the only clue that a whale is present.
Fun Whale Facts:
- Large, rotund and black, with large heads and no dorsal fins.
- Characterized by lumpy white growths on their heads, known as callosities.
- Can grow up to 53 feet in length and weigh up to 80 tons.
- Most critically endangered whale in the world, with global population estimates of around 400.
- Right whales are the rarest of all large whales.
- Right whales were named by whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to kill on a hunt.
- Because of their thick blubber, right whales also float accommodatingly after they have been killed.
- Because females do not become sexually mature until ten years of age and give birth to a single calf after a yearlong pregnancy, populations grow slowly.
- Dark grey, with a variable amount of white on fins and belly.
- Characterized by large, white fore-flippers.
- Can grow up to 60 feet long;
- females are larger than males.
- Males sing complex songs that can last for 20 minutes and can be heard up to 20 miles away.
- Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection.
- These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists aren’t sure if this breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale’s skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.
- Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, and they use their massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water.
- Females nurse their calves for almost a year, though it takes far longer than that for a humpback whale to reach full adulthood. Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old.