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Right whales in the wrong place


March 4, 1999
Web posted at: 11:26 a.m. EST (1543 GMT)

From Environmental Correspondent Natalie Pawelski

FERNANDINA BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Some of the world's most endangered species are missing. Dozens of Northern Right Whales should be swimming off the coast of Georgia and Florida right now. But this year only five or six showed up, researchers said.

"That's the most poignant thing of our season. There are no whales here to speak of," said Chris Slay of the New England Aquarium.

Scientists hope the cause is something temporary, like the weather.

"The El Niño year that we experienced a year or so ago may have disrupted food production. If they're not nutritionally fit that may jeopardize their reproductive ability," said Slay, who offered another hypothesis as well:

"Or it could be that the whales were simply dispersed searching for food and never were able to get it together, as it were, successfully."

Whatever the reason for their absence, right whales could be seriously threatened. Fewer than 400 remain. This area off the Atlantic Coast is their only known calving grounds. Two winters ago, 17 right whale calves were born. The season last year produced five. This year there were only two.

"A population like this couldn't stand too many years with only a couple of animals born into it," Slay said.

Whalers gave this sea mammal its name, saying it was the "right whale" to hunt. They're slow moving and stay close to the shore. Those same qualities continue to put the right whale in harm's way.

"They're an urban whale, really, if you will. They're found near shore near these large, busy ports," Slay said.

Such locations, unfortunately, mean trouble. Right whales spend the warmer months off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia, where some become tangled in fishing gear and drown. In the winter, many find themselves in the vicinity of large military and commercial ports. And the number one cause of death for adult right whales is collisions with ships.

Scientists tracking one of the two mother whales this winter found she spent hours on the surface at night, feeding and resting with her calf. She's a good mom, in a dangerous nursery.

"There is a lot of traffic coming through there so at that point when they coming in this region, they are at risk, basically at all times," said conservation biologist Joseph Roman.

Scientists prepare for humpbacks' survival
February 26, 1999
Researchers: Right whales unusually scarce off Southeast Coast
February 2, 1999

Whales on the Net
Wildlife Conservation Society
Humpbacks of Madagascar
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Cetacean Society International
Year of the Ocean
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