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North Atlantic Right Whales

The North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, is one of the most endangered large whales in the world, facing a high likelihood of extinction largely due to human activities. Approximately 500 animals remain of the western North Atlantic population, which is commonly found off the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Whalers labeled these animals "right whales" because they considered them the "right" whales to hunt. They swam slowly in coastal waters, floated when dead, and yielded large amounts of oil and baleen. Right whales had been hunted to near extinction when hunting was finally banned in 1935. Although whaling is now illegal, right whales are still strongly affected by human activities. Approximately 30 percent of all mortalities result from collisions with large vessels or entanglement in fishing gear.

Florida takes a special interest in right whales because their only known calving ground is located off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. From Nov. 15 to April 15, pregnant females migrate from their northern feeding grounds to the sheltered waters of the calving ground to give birth to their young.

In 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia as the right whale critical habitat in the Southeast U.S. This designation provides more protection for right whales while they are in the calving grounds. In an effort to protect this critical stage in the life of right whales, researchers, including the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR), and the New England Aquarium (NEA), fly Early Warning System (EWS) aerial surveys to locate animals during the calving season. The EWS surveys are organized to relay location information to mariners in an attempt to prevent vessel-whale collisions. Additionally, in July 1999, NMFS and the U.S. Coast Guard developed and implemented Mandatory Ship Reporting systems (MSR). The International Maritime Organization, a specialized organization of the United Nations, endorsed the MSR systems. When ships greater than 300 gross tons enter two key right whale habitats – one off the Northeast U.S. and one off the Southeast U.S. – they are required to report to a shore-based station. In return, ships receive a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures the ship can take to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.

Due to their coastal nature, right whales are often visible from the beach. Many citizens along Florida's eastern coast are involved in a right whale sighting network to help relay whale locations to mariners. When a right whale is sighted the information is reported to the Marine Resources Council sighting hotline (1-888-97-WHALE or 1-888-404-FWCC), where the information is then incorporated into the extensive communication network that informs mariners of right whale locations. Other species of whales are also found in Florida coastal waters, so it is important to be able to distinguish a right whale from other animals when reporting a sighting.

Right whales lack a dorsal fin; therefore, they have a large, flat back. They are dark gray or black and have "bumps" called callosities, on their head. The callosities appear white due to the presence of cyamids, or whale lice, that often congregate on the callosities. When right whales breathe they produce a V-shaped blow that is often as high as 15 feet and is visible from a great distance. Measuring up to 55 feet, an adult right whale can weigh 50 tons, and a newborn calf can measure 15 feet at birth and weigh 2,000 pounds.

The right whales' preference for coastal waters places them in commercial fisheries areas and increases their chances of gear entanglements. Approximately 57 percent of the photo-cataloged population of right whales exhibit scars from previous entanglements. If an entangled animal is sighted, immediately notify the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16. Include the time, GPS coordinates and physical location, and the animal's direction of travel. As members of the U.S. large whale disentanglement network, FWC North Atlantic right whale researchers have received specialized training; they can respond in the event that an entangled whale is sighted in the southeast.