Special deliveries

A North Atlantic right whale, Derecha, and her calf
A North Atlantic right whale, Derecha, and her calf are seen swimming off the coast of Vero Beach in February. JOE SEMKOW

Warm, calming waters off the Treasure Coast allow right whales to nurture newborns


Edmund Gerstein, director of the Marine Mammal Research at Florida Atlantic University
Edmund Gerstein, director of the Marine Mammal Research at Florida Atlantic University, conducts research on right whales.
JOEL COHEN (NOAA permit No. 19674)

In February, Derecha, a North Atlantic right whale, and her calf, made news when they were seen swimming just off of Vero Beach. Every year a few right whales use the Treasure Coast’s warm waters as a nursery for their young. Although most spend winters farther north in their usual calving grounds, enough come down to this area to be on the lookout.

“It’s one of the most amazing things that you can see in your life,” says Joel Cohen, wildlife photographer for the Marine Resources Council. “It literally changes you. You form this bond, this relationship with them, almost like it’s yours. To hear a whale breathe – this big momma breath and you hear this cute calf breath – it’s amazing. I wish everyone could see and hear it.”

Legend has it that right whales earned their name because they were the right or correct whale to kill for their valuable baleen and blubber. They swim close to shore and when dead they float to the surface, which made it easier for earlier whalers to hunt them down – nearly to extinction. Thanks to the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, they have made a modest comeback. But scientists warn that their survival looks grim unless drastic measures are taken to change the way humans interact with these giant sea animals.

“We need to be much better at avoiding the mother and calf relationships that are so critical to their recovery and well-being in the state of Florida,” says Jim Moir, vice chairman of the Marine Resources Council.

According to NOAA Fisheries, entanglements with commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of deaths among right whales. Between 2017 and 2021, 20 of the 34 documented deaths were attributed to entanglement and boat collisions. Experts say that number is higher as they know only about a third of the total deaths.

Tragically, every year many right whales are killed
Tragically, every year many right whales are killed by fishing gear entanglements and boat collisions. JOEL COHEN

Scientists point out that saving right whales begins with protecting the space where they are born.

“The big thing is, this is their only calving ground,” explains Edmund Gerstein, director of the Marine Mammal Research at Florida Atlantic University. “What happens down here determines in large part whether the whales will survive. We now have fewer than 350 animals left. If they can’t successfully give birth and rear their young here, they will disappear forever.”

Right whales swim close to the coast
Right whales swim close to the coast, so it’s important to be on the lookout for them. JIM MOIR (NOAA permit No. 19674)

“New math is showing we need more than 50 calves per season for this population to grow,” says Julie Albert, coordinator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program at the Marine Resources Council. “So when we’re seeing 14 or 15, people say, ‘Oh, that’s good compared to 2018 when we had zero calves.’ It’s still not enough for the population.”

Like snowbirds, mother right whales journey from New England or Canada in the fall to the waters of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida’s east coast. The massive sea creatures migrate south so they can give birth and rear their young between November and April. The warmer temperatures are the perfect environment for their calves who have yet to develop blubber and need to stay warm.

“They are also trying to stay away from males,” Moir explains. “It’s difficult for a mother to nurture and nurse a calf if they’re having sexual advances. They’re trying to grow these calves as quickly as they can because the calf has to swim 1,300 miles at least in a very short period of time. It’s all about nursing, nurturing and staying calm.”

Many right whales use the east coast of Florida as their calving grounds
Many right whales use the east coast of Florida as their calving grounds. JOEL COHEN (NOAA permit No. 20626)

Scientists have discovered through research using underwater hydrophones that mother whales and their calves communicate with one another through vocalizations. Once a mother gives birth, she and her calf remain isolated for about six weeks. Very little acoustic activity is heard during this time as she doesn’t want to attract the attention of predators.

After six weeks, researchers begin to hear babbling sounds and eventually complex calls between the mother and baby.

mother right whale's gunshot call to her calf
This spectrogram, published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, shows a mother right whale’s gunshot call to her calf. (Gerstein, E. R., Trygonis, V., McCulloch, S., Moir, J., & Kraus, S.)

“Mothers occasionally emit ‘gunshot’ sounds,” Gerstein says. “These are short impulsive calls, unique to right whales and actually sound like rifle fire. We record them when young calves abruptly leave their mothers in curious exploration. These maternal calls may serve to protect and/or call back their wayward calves.”

Communications between a mother whale and her calf reveal there is a process of intense instruction and learning going on between the two during its first months of life. It also shows how vital the calving grounds are to their survival.

“We theorize that mothers and calves establish acoustic recognition of each other before leaving the calving grounds,” Gerstein explains. “Acoustic signaling works well to identify and locate each other when you’re in a murky environment. They start vocal exchanges before initiating the northern migration, ensuring their bond and social cohesion along their journey.”

A hydrophone attached to a floating buoy
A hydrophone attached to a floating buoy records the sounds of a mother right whale for research. JIM MOIR
(NOAA permit No. 19674)

Experts say that if you spot right whales, please do not interact with the mammals. Give them their space and stay at least 500 yards away. To help save this critically endangered species, ropeless fishing gear and pop-up buoys are recommended as solutions to stop entangling them.

And if you’re lucky enough to see a mother right whale swimming with her calf, make sure to savor that once-in-a-lifetime moment. Remember to respect their space from a safe distance and learn how to protect their only nursery grounds that exist off the Southeastern coast. Their survival depends on us.

If You Sight a Whale

Report: Call and report it to the Marine Responses Council at 888.979.4253 or 888.97-WHALE. Be prepared to give time and the direction it is traveling, the number of whales and describe if the whale is entangled or injured.

Give it space: Watch from a safe distance, at least 500 yards or five football fields – it’s the law. This includes vessels, aircraft, drones and people using surfboards, kayaks, paddle boards and jet skis. Never approach a whale.

Go slow: Boaters should travel at 10 knots or less and be on the lookout from December to April. Right whales tend to swim close to the surface and can remain unseen due to their dark color and lack of a dorsal fin.


May 2022

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