Beaufort News

Hope persists for injured right whale off St. Helena Sound

The South Carolina, Georgia Right Whale Aerial Survey team took this photo of a severely injured right whale on Jan. 20, 2011 about 20 miles east of St. Helena Sound.
The South Carolina, Georgia Right Whale Aerial Survey team took this photo of a severely injured right whale on Jan. 20, 2011 about 20 miles east of St. Helena Sound. EcoHealth Alliance, NOAA Permit #594-1759

An injured right whale, bearing gashes along its body where it had been mauled by a boat propeller, was spotted off the coast near Beaufort last week.

The marine mammal was photographed by an aerial survey crew Jan. 20 about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound.

Dianna Schulte, a survey team leader with EcoHealth Alliance, said severely injured or dying animals often thrash in the water.

This one, though, was swimming offshore and was not behaving unusually.

"Because it was acting normally, that is a good sign," Schulte said.

The North Atlantic right whale is endangered, and only about 400 remain. Survey crews track the animals from the air to study them and to help warn ships of their presence. Shannon Bettridge, a ship-strike expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said waters near Beaufort County are at the south end of the whales' migratory route to calving ground off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.

An expert who examined the photos said there is reason to be "cautiously optimistic" about the animal's chances of survival.

Michael Moore, a veterinarian and senior research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said severe injuries from a ship strike usually will kill a whale quickly. Though it's unknown when this animal was hit, its survival so far, he said, is reason to be hopeful.

If the whale can be sighted again, that confidence would rise.

Schulte said in an average season, the survey crew covers the area two to three times a week. She hopes to return in the next few days.

The whale's troubles, though, won't be over even if its wounds heal.

"Those scars could actually cause some problems in the end," Moore said.

He said the scar tissue will not be flexible and elastic like the original muscle, skin and blubber, and the stiffness could make swimming difficult.

"It's kind of like trying to walk and swim in a straight-jacket," Moore said.

Bettridge said right whales are especially vulnerable to injury from boats because they spend a lot of time close to shore.

"They're dark in coloration, so it's very hard to spot them when they're moving along," Bettridge said.

Each year, she added, survey crews find a few animals that have been hit. More injuries or deaths may go unseen.

"Often it's possible that a large ship can hit a whale and not even be aware that there's been a collision," Bettridge said.

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