A North Atlantic right whale calf has been documented offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, beginning the count for what biologists hope will be a better calving season than last year's.
The whale was photographed off South Carolina to begin what Clay George, senior wildlife biologist and lead right whale researcher for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Conservation Section, hopes will be at least an average year for right whale calf sightings.
"We've received other reports off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, too, but do not have photos of them," George said.
Over the past decade, surveyors have seen an average of about 20 calves a year, but George says the numbers fluctuate because there are generally three years between births by breeding females.
Those fluctuations mean numbers can range anywhere from the record low of one calf sighting in 2000, to the record high of 39 in 2009, George said. Surveys began in 1980.
Dips in the calf count become a concern only if they occur for several years in a row, George added.
That is why the seven calves spotted last winter, one of which died, are not a major concern, George said.
George says he hopes this year's numbers will be back up to more normal ranges, after more breeding females were seen in the Bay of Fundy, a key foraging ground on the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada, during summer.
"There are at least 75 females in the population that haven't calved since 2010," George said. "I think it could drift back to an average year."
The Atlantic Ocean from Georgia to about Cape Canaveral, Fla., is the only known calving ground for the critically endangered species, with only a little more than 400 known to exist, George said.
He is urging boaters to slow down in areas the whales frequent during the November through April calving season. While there is no speed restriction for boats shorter than 65 feet, those that are larger must travel 10 knots -- 11.5 mph -- or slower through common calving zones, George said.
Doug Lewis, captain of the DNR Law Enforcement Division in Brunswick, says most ships follow the rules.
Smaller boats, which have no speed restrictions, are more likely to break distance rules, Lewis said.
"The most common thing we see is people getting too close to the whales," he said.
All boats are required by federal law to stay at least 500 yards away from a right whale in the wild, Lewis said.
Those rules are designed to cut down on deaths of the species caused by propellers or fishing gear, George said.
North Atlantic right whales have the second smallest population of all whales, George said.
Only the population of the North Pacific right whale is smaller, with a little more than 100 known to exist.
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