SAVANNAH, Ga. — Researchers have confirmed a pair of endangered right whales was spotted off the Georgia coast for the first time this winter, though they still haven’t seen any whale newborns two months into the species’ calving season.
North Atlantic right whales have so far proven elusive in the Atlantic waters off Georgia and Florida, where the large whales typically migrate each winter to give birth. This season is by far the longest scientists have gone without a baby whale siting since 1989, when they began using comprehensive surveys with airplanes and trained spotters.
A survey flight Wednesday confirmed two right whales swimming southward off Little St. Simons Island, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of Savannah. They were the first right whales seen in Georgia waters since the calving season began Dec. 1.
But neither whale was a calf, said Clay George, a wildlife biologist who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“My sense is there are very few whales in the Southeast currently, given that we’ve been able to survey most of the calving area in the past two days, yet only two whales were seen,” George said Friday in an email to the Associated Press.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates only about 450 Northern Atlantic right whales remain. The agency warned in December the species could face extinction without new protective actions.
Scientists worry this could be another low birth year for the imperiled whales after a grim 2017, when 17 confirmed right whale deaths far outpaced a scant five recorded births. However, researchers were also unable to search for whales during much of January because of bad weather.
Only one right whale has been seen off Florida, and it was spotted last month off Panama City Beach and again near Naples off the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists say right whales haven’t been seen in the Gulf since 2006.
Still, no right whale calves had been spotted as of Friday in any Atlantic or the Gulf waters off the southern U.S., said Allison Garrett, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries. Previously, the latest initial sighting was Jan. 1 — and that was during the dismal birthing season a year ago.
Scientists aren’t giving up hope. George noted one of the whales seen off Georgia was identified, using unique markings on its head that researchers catalog like fingerprints, as an adult female that last gave birth in 2014. That’s encouraging because female whales typically go three to four years between pregnancies.
“Adult females usually only migrate to the Southeast when they are pregnant,” George said. “So the odds are that she’s currently pregnant.”