Air searches for right whales offer surprises for Wildlife Trust teams

Catspaw swims with a newborn calf April 6 in the ocean off Hilton Head Island.

Squeezing into the tiny cockpit feels like squatting in a bathtub.

One of Rachel Sayre's shoulders bumps the plane wall, the other bumps the shoulder of Michelle Schatz. Even with headphones on, they hear gears crank on the propeller whizzing just behind their heads.

For hours at a time, all winter long, Wildlife Trust survey team members have perched with a pilot and first officer in the buzzing confines of a four-seat Cessna Skymaster, craning to peer out the windows at the endlessly rolling wave shadows and light of the ocean below.

They do this for moments like that one in December in the waters between Charleston and Georgetown when they came across Aphrodite nursing her calf - an enormous, 40-ton right whale nuzzled by her dolphin-sized young.

'The water was so clear you could see the bellies of them, the sucker fish, the remoras on them, and their shadows on the ocean floor,' Sayre said.

Since 2005, teams for the trust have combed the seas off South Carolina for the whereabouts of the rare right whale, the legendary mammoth of the North Atlantic. Fewer than 400 are known to exist, a number so perilously low that not only are the creatures critically endangered, but researchers consider every living whale vital to the survival of the species.

From the first, the teams were surprised. The whale was long thought to migrate from New England to Florida to calve in the winter, merely passing by the Lowcountry. But the flights revealed that some of the whales winter offshore here. And more adult males make the trip than thought.

This year, the South Carolina team spotted almost twice as many whales, 62, than last year. At least nine didn't go farther south. The flight season ends Tuesday.

The whale is called 'right' because back in the sailing ship days it was the right one to hunt, rich with oil and tending to float when killed. But it had been hunted almost to extinction by the turn of the 20th century. Humans are still the whales' biggest threat - deadly ship strikes, fishing line entanglements and potentially deafening noises such as sonar. They travel just offshore in an ocean so heavily trafficked that one conservationist describes them as essentially an urban creature.

That's where the trust team comes in. The more that can be learned about the whales' behavior, the more that can be done to protect them. From the air, the team can alert shipping when the whales are around. This year, Sayre and Schatz took turns in the plane with team member Lauren Beddia, a College of Charleston graduate, accompanying local contract pilot Frank Dugas and officer Andy Haveisen

of Orion Aviation.

The flights can be monotonously grueling or abruptly cut short. One morning they climbed into the clear sky above Mount Pleasant Regional Airport and ran into fog just off the Isle of Palms. They fly at about 1,000 feet, a view Dugas compared to looking down from the Ravenel bridge. In those conditions, spotting a whale is hit or miss.

'When you look out there at the swells, you see shadows. Then you see white. Then you see dark in the white,' Dugas said.

The job is the seat-of-the-pants work of conservation. For Sayre, 27, who grew up in West Virginia, this is what she has wanted to do since she saw her first manatee at Disney World as a 9 year old.

They pass the hours singing along to the XM satellite radio, telling jokes. The women bought cushions for their seats. The rest stop is once a day, at lunch. They have named their whales - Alien, Radiator, Catspaw. They endure the tedium.

'When I was on the whale watch (boat) last summer I was cleaning up puke and stuff. This is a lot better - alot better - gig,' Schatz said.

They've seen wonders: a 'frenzy' of 13 whales breaching and rolling, a migrating swarm of thousands of cownose rays that looked like a cranberry-colored floating carpet and three right whales surrounded by cannonball jellyfish.

Then, on one of their final flights of the year, they were given a going-away present in the ocean off Hilton Head Island. They spotted Catspaw for the third time. An elfin, late-season newborn swam alongside.

'I'm complete now that I saw that mom and calf,' Schatz said. 'That was my goal.'

Reach Bo Petersen at bpetersen@postandcourier.com or 745-5852.