Early last week, South Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation park ranger Ann Malys Wilson got the call that something incredible was happening off the coast of the Grand Strand.
In over two decades at Myrtle Beach State Park, Wilson has educated countless visitors, responded to dozens of sea turtle rescue calls, and witnessed all manner of unusual wildlife events.
But this was the first time she’d ever had the chance to see one of the world’s largest and rarest species: the Atlantic right whale.
Beach patrol members first sighted a mother and newborn calf right whale pair just off North Myrtle Beach on February 10. Atlantic right whales migrate as far south as Florida in the winter to breed, but the black, finless animals are rarely seen as they pass through South Carolina waters. Wilson and Scott Hartley raced to Apache Pier to catch a glimpse of the pair as they swam south.
“By the time we arrived, they had moved at least a quarter mile offshore and seemed to be moving even farther out,” Wilson said. But with a spotting scope and binoculars, Wilson and Hartley were able to make out the mother and calf before dusk.
“We watched the calf spyhop [peek its head above water], roll over, slap its pectoral fin, and even saw the fluke a couple of times. The callosities on the female were very easy to see,” she said, referring to the unique white patches seen on right whales that allow researchers to identify individuals.
It was, in short, she said, “the coolest thing ever.”
Wilson and others who saw the pair reported their sightings to the federal agency that oversees the protection of marine mammals, setting off excited chatter as biologists across the coast worked to identify the mother.
First recorded in 1989, the mother’s age is unknown – but a distinctive, palm-shaped pattern on her head, along with repeated wintertime sightings off the coast of South Carolina, led to the nickname Palmetto.
“Palmetto isn't observed very often and seems to prefer Georgia and South Carolina waters,” Wilson said after learning more about the whale’s identity from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission biologists. Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Clay George confirmed that Palmetto has typically been sighted in South Carolina and Georgia in years that she gives birth. She was last spotted in the Gulf of Maine in 2018. (The New England Aquarium hosts a remarkable catalog of all known Atlantic right whales, where you can learn more about Palmetto.)
Now, Palmetto has returned to the waters of her namesake state with her fifth known calf. At birth, right whale calves average 14 feet in length, about as long as a standard sedan. Experts estimated Palmetto’s calf at just a few weeks of age.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of such calving events. Atlantic right whale mothers gave birth to just 12 calves from 2017 to 2019, “less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales,” according to NOAA Fisheries. “This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017, accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.”
Palmetto exemplifies another growing concern among biologists. In a healthy population, right whale mothers give birth about every three years. “But now, on average, females are having calves every 6 to 10 years,” according to NOAA. Palmetto last gave birth eleven years ago, in 2009.
In such a critically imperiled population, every single calf makes a difference. That’s why experts were troubled to learn that a newly born calf off the coast of Florida was injured by a boat propeller on January 8, 2020. Researchers were able to administer antibiotics to the calf, but its prognosis remains poor, and the calf and its mother have not been spotted again since January 16.
The injured calf notwithstanding, 2020 may still provide a much-needed bright spot for right whales. As of writing, ten right whale calves have been born this season, nearly as many as born in the three previous seasons combined.
The survival of Palmetto’s calf and others like them is what stands between a future in which our grandchildren might catch a spectacular glimpse of the ocean’s greatest inhabitants – and one in which they’re relegated to bygone legends in the book of extinction.