Monday, June 24, 2024

From snowbirds to humpbacks, it’s migration season: NOAA reminds residents to keep their distance (from whales)

After an incident in Carolina Beach where lifeguards were seen trying to swim with a whale, NOAA is asking everyone to practice safe whale-viewing techniques

Right whales are endangered with only about 450 remaining in the wild according to NOAA (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)
Right whales are endangered with only about 450 remaining in the wild according to NOAA (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)

SOUTHEASTERN NC — As the days grow shorter and the seasons begin to change, coastal residents might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some seasonal visitors to the region. From migrating birds to retirees from the north, there’s a lot of fall visitors, but one type can make quite the splash — that’s right, it’s whale season.

Whales are making their annual journey south to the warmer waters coming from the New England area and two whale types, in particular, can be spotted off the Carolina shore: right whales and humpback whales. While it might seem like a neat experience to see these massive mammals up close, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Department is asking residents and visitors to keep their distance.

After a whale was spotted in Carolina Beach earlier this month, several lifeguards were spotted trying to swim out to the animal and get up close and personal — but this is not only an unsafe idea, as it turns out, it could be illegal.

Barb Zoodsma is a whale biologist for NOAA and offered some advice for anyone who gets lucky enough to spot a whale, not just during migration season, but anytime.

Right whales, a protected species

The two main large whale species that are typically seen off the Carolinas are humpbacks and right whales, the latter of which are critically endangered, according to Zoodsma.

“Right whales are so endangered there are probably less than 450 Atlantic right whales –– we are so concerned about their population that it is against the law to be approach or being within 500 yards of them,” she said.

When it comes to other whale species and marine mammals in general, even if they are not considered endangered, they are still protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act. This legislation makes any sort of harassment of whales illegal, but harassment is not always what it seems.

“That word harassment can be confusing – it makes it seem like you deliberately go and harass or have bad intentions but actually it means if you affect their behavior. If you are in a boat and you cause it [a whale] to change its course that is against the law,” Zoodsma said.

Not only is it illegal to harass whales, it is also worth remembering that these are massive animals with the potential to cause harm.

Zoodsma told the story of a fisherman in Florida who saw a humpback whale in the distance breaching and thought nothing of it — that is, until schools of fish began congregating under his boat and the next thing he knew a whale had breached itself onto his boat.

The fisherman from the story managed to survive to tell the story, thanks to his boat’s awning, but it emphasizes Zoodsma’s point. Wild animals are unpredictable, and when pitting a 200-pound human against a 40-ton whale that can be in excess of 50-feet in length, the whale will win the battle every time.

Humpbacks and right whales are not particularly known for being aggressive she said, but that does not mean they won’t hurt a person. So what happens if a surfer or someone in the water gets a surprise encounter with a whale?

“If I was out on a surfboard I would make sure I was making some noise in the water so it at least knows you are there then I would slowly move away from it. Don’t get out in front of it especially if they are breaching. You just never know when a whale is going to start breaching – they are just doing that because they are just whales,” Zoodsma said.

The best way to check out whales is from the safety of the beach she said. If residents or boaters do happen to come across a whale that seems to be sick or injured, or even deceased, NOAA wants to know about it and you can call 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343).

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