SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — As endangered right whales return to the southern Atlantic coast for their calving season, conservationists are hoping for a rebound in births after the number of newborn whales hit a 10-year low last winter.
The head of the Southeast right whale recovery program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday she's bracing for another season with few births. For the past decade, whale spotters have reported an average of about 20 newborn right whales each calving season from mid-November to through March. But last year only six calves were spotted.
"My suspicion is that we'll have another slow calving season this year, but we'll hope that I'm wrong and hope for the best," said Barb Zoodsma, who added that even one poor calving season is cause for concern. "There are no such things as minor blips with this population. It is such a small population and in such a precarious state, minor blips are major events."
Experts estimate as few as 400 North Atlantic right whales still exist. The whales, which grow up to 55 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons, are so critically endangered that losing even one is considered a step toward extinction.
Every calving season, conservationists conduct daily flights over the warm coastal waters of the southern Atlantic where female right whales migrate each winter to give birth — typically off Georgia and Florida. For South Carolina and the northern Georgia coast, those flights begin Thursday, with southern Georgia and Florida starting on Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, federally mandated speed limits for boats and commercial ships in waters frequented by right whales, imposed to reduce fatal collisions, are also kicking in along the coast this month.
Officials in Georgia believe they spotted the first right whale in southern waters this calving season Friday near Wassaw Island. The whale was swimming with about 20 dolphins about a mile from shore, said Lt. j.g. Chris Briand of NOAA's officer corps, who was piloting the boat that reported the siting.
"For this area and this time of season, that far in shore, it would've been a right whale," said Briand, who saw enough of the whale above the surface to estimate its length at about 25 feet.
Whale experts suspect the reason for so few births last year — and why this season may be similar — may be a food shortage in the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia. Right whales commonly spend their summers there feeding on tiny zooplankton, but few were spotted in the area in the summers of 2010 and 2011.
Zoodsma said if researchers are correct in linking low births last season to a 2010 food shortage, and few right whales were spotted feeding in the bay last year, that could mean another lean year for newborns.
"It's definitely a cause for concern," Zoodsma said. "I'm not sure what we can do about it, but it certainly doesn't advance recovery of the species."
Clay George, who heads the right whale monitoring program for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said he's not giving up hope that births will make a comeback this winter.
Female right whales only give birth every three years. Fewer calves born last winter means the pool of potential mothers is greater this season.
"I'm optimistic because one upshot to a low calving year is that the following year there are that many more females available to calve," George said.