Untamed Lowcountry

Why endangered right whales migrating to South Carolina keep getting harder to spot

As Northern right whales head to South Carolina, a handful of Beaufort County boaters might get a chance to catch a glimpse of the species.

The creatures, which can weight up to 79 tons, are the rarest of large whales and can come within a few miles of the state’s coastline to migrate and breed. This proximity, however, has become deadly.

After an encouraging rebound during the past few decades, the whales seem to be experiencing a downfall.

Due to boat strikes and fishing gear entanglements — a major threat for the species — fewer females are surviving long enough to breed, according to The Charleston Post and Courier.

There are only 100 reproductively mature females, according to the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

“Right now, we are seeing more whales killed each year than the number of new calves born, and if we don’t reverse this trend soon, they could go extinct within our lifetime,” Christin Khan, a fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Post and Courier.

Pregnant females start heading south and arrive 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.

In January 2011, a right whale was injured in the water off Beaufort County. Aerial survey teams spotted a severely injured right whale — with gashes along its body caused by a boat propeller — about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound.

Last summer, 14 of the whales were found dead in waters off Canada and Cape Cod, according to NOAA. Nearly all of them had been killed by strikes or entanglements, according to the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island, where the forensics took place.

Between 1990 and 2010, the abundance of Northern right whales increased by nearly three percent a year, from about 270 in 1990 to 482 in 2010. Since 2010, however, the number has declined each year, according to a recently released study by NOAA.

With about 450 Northern right whales in existence today, the species remains critically endangered.

“Although our work directly reveals a relatively small decrease, the subtext is that this species is presently in dire straits,” Richard Price, NOAA whale researcher and lead author, said in a news release.

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst