Right Whale Q&A with Cathy Sakas


PB100196.jpg

There is a reason the right whale is our state marine mammal. Growing up to 52 feet long, living as long as 70 years and weighing as much as 70 tons, these creatures are a sight to behold. They are also highly endangered, with only approximately 4o0 whales left on Earth. They are our planet’s most endangered great whale and coastal Georgia’s most celebrated winter visitor.

Each fall, pregnant female right whales migrate from their feeding grounds in the cold waters of the North Atlantic to the warmer waters off the coast of Georgia and northeastern Florida to give birth to their calves. They will spend the next several months of winter nursing before departing in March or April back to their feeding grounds. 

Our winter water temperatures can actually be warmer than the summer water temperatures off Nova Scotia and New England. Mothers have nearly three feet of insulating blubber while calves have only a fraction of an inch. New mothers cannot go too much further south because they will overheat, but their calves cannot endure cold water until gaining insulating blubber layers. 

Consequently, the milk of mother right whales has the highest fat content of any mammalian milk at 42% milk fat! Calves can gain up to 200 pounds per day on mother’s milk for the first two weeks of their lives. By mid-spring calves have enough insulation and energy to migrate the 2000 miles back up to their traditional feeding grounds with their vigilant mothers.

Right whales face a range of threats including ship strikes and entanglement in fishing netting.

The Georgia Conservancy sat down with Cathy Sakas to learn more about these rare animals. Cathy is the former education coordinator at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary on Skidaway Island in Savannah and a former member of the Southeast U.S. Implementation Team for the Recovery of the North Atlantic Right Whale. As soon as she retired from Gray’s Reef Sanctuary in January 2014, she immediately set up Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to support the research projects and education and outreach programs of the Sanctuary. 

How did you first get involved with right whales?

One cold day in January 1981 while I was serving as a naturalist on Little St. Simons Island, the Coast Guard called and asked me to ground truth a pygmy sperm whale beached on the north end of the island. When I went out to take a look, I saw that it wasn’t a pygmy sperm whale at all; it was a newborn baleen whale that I didn’t recognize. After researching it, I discovered it was a newborn, a neonate, North Atlantic right whale!

It is worth noting that at this point no one knew female right whales migrated annually to Georgia and Florida to give birth. Researchers at the New England Aquarium observed that pregnant females disappeared in the fall and came back in the spring with calves, but they did not know exactly where they went to birth their calves. 

Finding this newborn whale was quite exciting. What was notable was when another newborn washed ashore on Ossabaw Island a month later and, prior to that, staff of Georgia Department of Natural Resources reported seeing an adult right whale in the previous fall. These events led to the discovery of their seasonal migration pattern. 

How is the right whale population doing right now?

Since being placed on the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection lists in 1970, the right whale has rebounded – from approximately 50 in 1970 to approximately 400 today. While that may seem like an impressive recovery, they still have a long way to go to get back to their traditional population numbers prior to the decimation enacted on them by the whaling industry. They were after all the right whale to harpoon since they were very slow moving, floated when dead, and yielded the most amount of oil per cubic foot of blubber of any other whale. While harpooning whales in our country is thankfully no longer legal nor tolerated, there are still many preventable threats they endure daily.

What are some of the threats?

Today vessel strikes are the leading cause of right whale deaths. Much has been done to prevent this, such as requiring all vessels greater than 65 feet in length to slow to 10 knots in Seasonally Managed Areas or if a right whale has been reported in a specific area. In addition, shipping lanes off Cape Cod that ran through Stellwagen Banks National Marine Sanctuary were shifted five miles northward of the whale’s most frequented feeding grounds, which led to an 80 percent decrease in vessel strikes. 

Another cause of death for right whales is entanglement in fishing nets. Nets can kill whales either by suffocation, as is the case with gill nets, where the net prevents the whale from surfacing to breathe, or by infection from wounds caused by the netting digging into their flesh as they tow it, which can happen over a period of months or even years. Gill netting causes the most immediate deaths, since whales skim feed near the surface where these nets are deployed. The good news is that Georgia and Florida both ban the use of gill netting during calving season. 

What should boaters on our coast do if they see a right whale?

If you see a right whale while boating, the most important thing to do is to not approach it. Federal law prevents anyone and any vessel including jet skis, kayaks and surf boards from coming within 500 yards of a right whale. More importantly, a mother and calf are both at their most vulnerable time if you see them in our coastal waters and you do not want to do anything that could inadvertently cause harm to the mother or baby. If a right whale surfaces, the best action to take is to put your boat in gear and slowly, slowly move away. The other important action to take is to become educated about right whales and tell others what you know. This will create a robust network of informed citizens. Sharing information about right whales and what to do for them is critical to their recovery. Donating to organizations that support the recovery of right whales is an action we can all do. They are after all Georgia’s marine mammal!