By: Kristina Smith and Sara Crouch
During the late fall, Jacksonville hosts a welcome party for its annual guests,
North Atlantic Right Whales.
Every winter, these whales travel from north-east Atlantic shores to waters near south Georgia and northern Florida. It’s birthing season, and tourists and scientists from all over the state gather to celebrate and raise awareness.
Dr. James Powell, the Executive Director of Sea to Shore Alliance, likes to point
out that whales can be spotted off Jacksonville beach.
“Most people don’t even know that these whales come off Jacksonville beach
and can sometimes be seen right off of the coast having their babies…This is the
most important habitat in the world for these species of whales.”
While catching a rare glimpse of the right whale would be a treat, getting too
close to the whale would be breaking the law. Both commercial and recreational
vessels are required to stay at least 500 yards away from right whales. This
applies to water vehicles and aircraft, including drones.
For the last century the right whale has been endangered, with its name giving a
vital clue as to why: because of the bountiful oil they would offer, it’s easy to see why some whale hunters would consider them the right whale to go after.
Since then, the right whale population has made a weak and uncertain comeback.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over
the last 35 years, the right whale population has grown at a 2% rate.
However, their population has suffered in the last two years. There were no visible calves for the 2017 birthing season, and at the 2018 Right Whale Consortium, it was
reported that only 411 right whales are left compared to last year’s 450.
Right whales have struggled to thrive because of manmade threats such as entanglement and collisions with boats. Though NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) train to disentangle the lucky whale that is caught, they need whale-watchers to report any sightings. Organizations like NOAA, FWC, Sea to Shore, the coast guard and more show up to the Right Whale Festival to raise awareness along with vendors and volunteers.
The Right Whale festival in is held every year to make visitors aware of the whales’ dwindling numbers and threats. With every year, more arrive to the festival with more hope that this whale population will survive.
Julie Albert, a Right Whale Conservation Coordinator, thinks its humankind’s duty
to help the whales.
“Although they’ve been protected internationally from whaling for more than 8
decades it is still humans that are keeping them from rebounding…I think they have
just as much of a right to be here as much as we do and it shouldn’t be our decision
to wipe them off of the earth.”