- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Endangered right whales have begun returning to waters along the southern Atlantic coast where they give birth each winter.

Each December, aerial crews begin daily surveys of coastal waters from Wassaw Island near Savannah to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to look for right whale mothers with their newborn calves. The first right whale of the season was spotted Nov. 16 by a South Carolina research vessel near Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast, the Savannah Morning News reported (https://bit.ly/2gEpT4G) .

Clay George, a wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says he’s optimistic right whales will be more productive this season than in the past year, when a below-average 16 calves were spotted.

“The good news is that any time you have below-average calving it means that many more females are available to calf the next year,” George said. “They can’t have a calf every year.”

George said noted that 31 right whale calves born in 2000 have now matured enough to mate and give birth.

The large whales were hunted close to extinction in the 1800s and experts estimate only about 450 still exist. Each winter, right whales migrate from Canada and New England to the warm coastal waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to give birth.

The whales tend to stick close to the coastline, making them vulnerable to being struck by boats and ships. Federal law requires vessels and aircraft to keep a distance of 500 yards from right whales

“People assume that due to their size right whales would be easy to see, but that’s not true,” said Tom Pitchford, wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Right whales are dark in color with no dorsal fin and tend to swim slowly at or just below the water’s surface. There is often very little visual cue that a whale is present.”

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, https://www.savannahnow.com

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