Search for rare whales reveals 'something very strange'

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The hunt for right whales is on again, but it's not sailors with harpoons tracking these rare creatures; instead it's biologists armed with cameras.  And they're all trying to figure out: Where are these whales going?

"Something very strange is going on," NOAA biologist Barb Zoodsma offered.

There are only about 500 right whales left after they were hunted to near-extinction by commercial whalers.  Now, their biggest threats to repopulation are ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

To keep them safe, scientists try to track the lives of these rare creatures -- from births to deaths and everything in between. 

The coasts of Florida and Georgia are their only known calving grounds, and those waters have been designated as a critical right whale habitat by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  That’s where biologists head each year, from November through April. 

"When you're talking about monitoring the population, it all starts here," Zoodsma explained.

NOAA works with agencies from Florida and Georgia to conduct aerial surveys each winter, using photos to identify each whale and any new calves that are born.

As this season winds down, biologists have so far spotted 14 different mother-calf pairs in the calving grounds, along with another six right whales.  That's down slightly from previous years, but the long-term trend is still positive.

"I've been doing this for a while," Zoodsma continued.  "There were some skinny years.  It seems things are going up when you look at a larger time scale."

But where the whales go after the calving season is becoming more of a mystery.  The whales usually follow their food source -- small crustaceans called copepods -- up to the coast of New England in the summer.  In the past, observers could see 80 to 90 percent of the known whale population in places like the Bay of Fundy.  But only a handful of whales have been spotted there in the last few years.

"It's literally like these animals fell off the face of the earth," Zoodsma said.

With the calving numbers fairly stable, scientists are confident that the whales have not actually disappeared; they’ve just moved.  But they don't know where, so NOAA is funding a study to develop tracking tags that would allow scientists to monitor the creatures' movements via satellite.

Tags mounted with suction cups fall off after an hour or two -- after all, it doesn't take much for a 50-ton creature to brush a small tag from its skin.  Darts fired from air guns -- like mosquito bites to the giant creatures, Zoodsma explained -- stay attached for a few days or even weeks, but that requires an airborne platform to help boats "sneak up" on the whales.

That means spotters will continue to play an important role in tracking and protecting the right whales.  They'll be in the air off the coast of Florida, at least for a few more weeks.

"If the whales disappear from here, we know we're in trouble," added Zoodsma.

What to do if you see a right whale
Interactive whale-sighting map