Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Right Day to Spot a Whale

It’s not an everyday sight to see a whale in the Fort Fisher area, but for one recreational boater Sunday, November 8th was a lucky day. The boater called in a report that they had seen a North Atlantic Right whale around Masonboro Jetty. UNCW’s aerial marine mammal survey team was in the air at the time and flew over the area to see if the sighting was accurate. In fact, three North Atlantic Right whales were sighted near Fort Fisher State Park in Kure Beach. This is one of the earliest recorded seasonal sightings of North Atlantic Right whales in the Cape Fear region.

Right whales are large, bulky baleen whales. Baleen whales lack teeth and use baleen, which hangs in rows from the roof of the mouth, to sieve ocean waters for planktonic prey. The upper jaw of a North Atlantic Right whale is narrow and covered by hardened patches of skin called “callosities.”These callosities are actually sea lice living symbiotically on the whales and every Right whale can be identified by a unique callosity pattern. Right whales lack a dorsal fin or ridge; this and their large paddle-shaped pectoral fins help distinguish them from the humpback whale. Humpback whales travel along the NC coast in winter months often close enough to see from shore. North Atlantic Right whales are commonly 35-55 feet long; the largest ever recorded was 60 feet long. They are among the slowest swimming whales, and can live up to 70 years. The North Atlantic Right whale is extremely endangered even though it has been protected since the 1930s. Right whales, because they swim slowly close to shore, suffer high mortality from ship strikes with large ocean vessels. Entanglement in fishing gear also poses a great threat to these whales. Climate change impacts on the ocean threaten the productivity of Right whale feeding grounds. Copepods, the primary prey for North Atlantic Right whales, decline in response to even a slight increases in ocean temperature.

Several options have been suggested to reduce the deaths of Right whales; including boat speed limits and whale calls in avoid ship collisions. Vessel restrictions went into effect in December 2009. The restrictions require boats 65 feet or longer to travel at a speed of 10 knots or less in certain locations along the east coast of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard at certain times of the year, these new rules are an effort to bring the Right whales back to a healthy status.

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