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Right whales spotted off Florida coast

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Two mother-and-calf pairs of endangered North Atlantic right whales were spotted in Flagler Beach and Daytona Beach on Monday, bringing the total number of reported pairs this season to five.

Members of the Marine Right Whale Project reported the pairs, bringing drones and research equipment to document the sightings as well as check in on the health of the whales.

Whale No. 3560 and her calf were spotted in Daytona Beach about 1,800 feet from shore, said Ralph Bundy, volunteer drone pilot and video producer for the Marineland Right Whale Project.

“This calf is having a blast out here,” Bundy said. “It looks great, like a typical hyperactive child.”

In Flagler Beach, whale No. 3456, or Halo, was spotted with her calf, Bundy said. This is the second time in her life that Halo, a 15-year-old right whale, has given birth to a calf.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered. Only an estimated 413 of the massive species remains. As a result, whale watchers are especially interested in the births of calves.

Related: Florida wildlife: Winter is time to see right whales as they migrate south

The five births this right whale season compares to 2018, when no new births were recorded. Julie Albert, right whale coordinator for the Marine Resources Council, said the endangered mammals are still dying faster than they’re reproducing. Since 2017, there have been 30 reported right whale deaths, compared to 17 births. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has reported six calves spotted this season.

Human intervention is the single largest threat to the endangered species. Between fishing equipment entanglement and boat strikes, researchers have a difficult time figuring out how long the whales can actually live to be. However, according to the Marineland Right Whale Project, there is some documentation of whales living upward of 60 years.

The mother spotted in Daytona Beach showed evidence of a propeller wound on its tail, Bundy said. Large, white scarring was seen through drone footage, but he said he wasn’t sure of the age of the wound. .

In addition, one of the calves born this year suffered an extreme wound on its head and mouth, also from a propeller, just days after being born. Biologists are keeping an eye on the calf, and they’re concerned the wound might inhibit its ability to nurse or feed.

That’s why the law prevents boaters from getting too close to the whales. It’s illegal for anyone to be within 500 yards of a right whale, whether it be with a drone or in a boat or on a paddleboard, with consequences including fines from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Right whales can get up to 52 feet long, and weigh up to 70 tons, according to NOAA, and are known for the distinct v-shaped spouts that shoot into the air from their blow holes.

Bundy said when he talks to people about the whales, he breaks the discussion into two parts: advocacy and awareness. He said it’s important to teach people about the endangered mammals, but also to report them when you see them and encourage others to do the same.

“We need to be very aware of them,” he said. “They’re on the brink of extinction.”

This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.