Boaters beware: Endangered right whales heading south for calving season

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 11, 2011 

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Be mindful of the whale. There's a baby onboard.

Federal officials are asking boaters and fishermen along the southern Atlantic coast to keep an eye out for endangered right whales, which are heading south for their calving season.

Pregnant North Atlantic right whales start arriving off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in mid-November to give birth to their calves in the warmer southern waters, and stay through mid-April. The southeastern coast is their only known calving ground.

With only 300 to 400 in existence, right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Barb Zoodsma, NOAA right whale recovery program coordinator, warns that the whales can be tough to spot and tend to swim just below the surface. That puts them at risk of fatal collisions with boats.

Propeller strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two greatest threats to the whales, according to NOAA.

Zoodsma said boaters should report any sightings of right whales and keep at least 500 yards away.

An injured right whale bearing gashes where it had been mauled by a propeller was spotted off the coast near Beaufort in January. It was photographed by an aerial survey crew Jan. 20 about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound.

NOAA scientists and researchers in February performed an autopsy on a 31-foot, 15,000-pound right whale pulled from the water after being found floating dead off St. Augustine, Fla. Initial observations showed the whale had been entangled for months in fishing rope, preventing it from feeding and making it easy prey for sharks. Numerous lesions and shark bite marks were found on the carcass, according to NOAA.

Survey crews track the animals from the air in partnership with the S.C. Ports Authority, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to study the whales and help warn boaters of their presence.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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