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Features

May 8, 2015


Follow the North Atlantic Right Whale:
Georgia's State Marine Mammal

North Atlantic right whale and calf

North Atlantic right whale and calf
Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Consortium under permit.

Have you heard tales of whales the size of school buses swimming in the waters off the Georgia coast? If so, you may be delighted to know that there is truth in these tales. And if you were unaware, you are not alone. This is big news to many people, even some who have lived on our coast all of their lives.

These highly endangered North Atlantic right whales are in need of our attention!


The North Atlantic right whale is Georgia's official state marine mammal . Beginning in November each year, breeding females migrate from their foraging grounds in the Northeast U.S. and Canada to their only known calving grounds offshore of Georgia and Florida. Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary lies within the calving grounds. Female whales give birth and nurse their young in these warmer waters throughout the winter season. Then, each spring, during March and April, mother whales lead their new calves on a northward migration back to cooler waters that include Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where they feed and breed throughout the summer and fall months. Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary helps to protect Georgia's State Marine Mammal by participating on the Right Whale Recovery Southeast Implementation Team. Everyone can help by spreading word about the habits of these rare animals and the challenges they face for their continued existence.

Whalers of the 11th century

Whalers of the 11th century.
Photo: North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

At one time, considered the "right" whale to kill, they were hunted to near extinction. Commercial harvest was banned internationally in 1935 and yet 80 years later their population has grown very little, with as few as 450 individuals currently found in the Northwest Atlantic. Right whales have received further protections through the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act because of their critically low numbers. However, almost half of North Atlantic right whale deaths since 1970 have been attributed to vessel strikes due to heavy shipping traffic along the eastern coastline and entanglement in fixed fishing gear. To help prevent ship collisions with whales, the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service has implemented regulations, including speed restrictions, recommended shipping routes, and areas to be avoided. To help reduce incidental injury and mortality in large whales by entanglement in fishing gear, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan was established.

North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing line

Fishing line, and especially vertical line from submerged crab pots, can become entangled and cause injury or death to marine animals.
Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

North Atlantic right whale exposes baleen

North Atlantic right whale exposes baleen as it sifts the water to feed on tiny animals.
Photo: NOAA

North Atlantic right whale with satellite tag

North Atlantic right whale with satellite tag, authorized by National Marine Fisheries Service permit.
Photo: Alaska Sealife Center

North Atlantic right whales are impressive animals. Adults can weigh up to 71 tons and generally are between 43 and 53 feet in length. Their habitat is situated along the U.S. east coast extending from Florida to the Northeast U.S. and Canada. North Atlantic right whales are baleen whales that swim and rest at or near the surface of the ocean. Baleen refers to long plates of fingernail type structures hanging in rows (like the teeth of a comb) from their upper jaws, allowing them to strain huge volumes of ocean water to capture their food: zooplankton (tiny animals). During the months from spring through fall, these baleen whales focus their energy on eating zooplankton. They capture their prey by swimming through the water with their mouth open, either at the water's surface or at depth, collecting the tiny animals in the baleen inside their mouths.

Life expectancies of female North Atlantic right whales have been recorded at 65 years, with Bowhead whales (a closely related species) living more than 200 years. Females begin breeding around ten years of age and generally give birth to one calf every three to five years. Over time, continued protections and increased awareness of North Atlantic right whales may help increase the population of these special animals.

While conservation efforts help to increase the potential recovery of North Atlantic right whales, they currently remain one of the most endangered species of whale with an estimated minimum population count of only 450 individuals as of 2010. You can imagine therefore how marine sanctuaries, such as Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, coastal Georgia's amazing underwater park, are tremendously important. Marine sanctuaries are designated with a goal to maintain healthy habitats and protections for all marine animals; protections that will benefit future generations of fisherman, divers, seafood consumers, and ocean enthusiasts. For more information or to help protect and save the North Atlantic right whales for future generations, please contact the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Georgia Department of Natural Resources .

Habitat Areas of the North Atlantic Right Whale

North Atlantic right whales migrate between cooler northern waters and warmer southern waters off the eastern coast of the U.S.
Photo: North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.


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