Learn more about these migrating cetaceans just off the South Carolina coast.
The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is the rarest of the large whale species. With a current population of about 300 individuals, this once-abundant cetacean is now endangered. Hunting has diminished their numbers since the 1600’s but North Atlantic Right Whales have been internationally protected since 1949.
The Right Whales live in the northwest Atlantic and spend their time in shallow coastal waters, near bays and peninsulas. These areas provide food, shelter and security. Right Whales spend their summer months in New England feeding. The deep bays of Cape Cod and Massachusetts provide food and nurseries for these animals. They can also be found in the Great South Channel of Cape Cod, The Bay of Fundy, and the Brown and Baccaro Banks off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Beginning in October, pregnant females begin to migrate south into the waters of the Southeastern United States.
The coastal waters of Georgia and Florida provide ideal calving and nursery grounds for the Right Whale.
Right Whales are large creatures, growing up to 59 feet and weighing up to 60 tons. Generally, females are larger than males. These striking cetaceans have massive heads with callosities (hard raised skin, actually a type of whale lice) on their jaw. They lack a dorsal fin, but have large paddle-like flippers. Right whales tend to be strand feeders with baleen plates and bristles that can measure up to eight feet in length. These plates allow them to filter tiny zooplankton to eat.
Without teeth to determine age, research has been done on ear bones to determine the longevity of Right Whales.
Although not much information has been gathered on the topic, it is thought that right whales can live to be 50 years old. Close relatives of the Right Whale are known to live past 100 years. Females will reach their sexual maturity at the age of 10 and experience a yearlong gestation, producing a single calf. The young will wean from the mother within the first year of life.
These whales obtained their names from hunters because they were considered the “right” whales to kill in a hunt.
Their body weight is at least 50 percent blubber. Thus, they would float when killed, making them more accessible to hunters. These whales were harvested for oil as well as their baleen. The baleen was popular in making carriage whips as well as corsets. These animals were hunted almost to the point of extinction between 1650 and 1949.
In 1949, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling protected these whales throughout the entire world. Today, these animals are still under threat from ship strikes, becoming entangled in fishing gear, invasion of habitat and general pollution. Their only predators are killer whales and large sharks.
The winter months in South Carolina offer a chance to view these animals during their migration. Although a rare sight, once spotted, these animals are unmistakable. The Department of Natural Resources and whale conservation organizations are always looking for volunteers to help document these animals. You can help by photographing any whales you see and sending your photos to NOAA. Please visit the NOAA website at www.noaa.gov to learn more about rules and regulations for observing Right Whales while boating in South Carolina waters.
By Kathleen McMenamin, Master Naturalist
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