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Rare right whale mom and calf spotted by a drone off SC coast

NOAA right whale and calf (copy)

North Atlantic right whales and their calves swim so close to shore that boat strikes are a leading cause of death. A right whale mother and calf were seen by a drone off the Myrtle Beach pier this week. Christin Khan/NOAA/Provided

A right whale mom and newborn calf were spotted just off a North Myrtle Beach pier this week — by a drone.

That illustrates the jeopardy of the critically endangered species that might already be doomed to extinction.

The sighting was made Monday by a person flying a drone from a pier at the beach. The whales were within 100 yards of the pier itself, in relatively shallow water heavily trafficked by boaters.

"They're close to shore, they sit low in the water and they are very slow," said Lauren Rust, of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network. "Boaters need to really be aware of them."

Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, 40-ton mammoths with fins as long as boats, a curious two-plume breathing spray and lacking a dorsal fin. Despite their size, they are hard to spot, and boat strikes are a leading cause of known deaths.

At least 10 calves have been spotted so far as the winter calving slows down, after seven were spotted last winter. But none were spotted the year before. In those three years, there have been 30 known deaths among the the species overall.

"They are not repopulating," Rust said. "While the calf numbers this year are exciting, they are not good numbers."

Plentiful before being hunted nearly to extinction by whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries, right whales are now down to about 400 known animals, including about 100 mature females. 

The whales migrate seasonally between rich feeding waters off New England and warmer calving waters from South Carolina to Florida. Pregnant females make the 1,000-mile expedition close to the coast.

They usually calve in the waters off Florida and southern Georgia. But a newborn was spotted with its mom in 2005 in the breakers off Pawleys Island near Georgetown.

One of this winter's calves already might be lost. Spotted with its mom off Georgia in January, the days-old newborn had been cut through the lip, apparently by a boat propeller. It has not been seen since. Veterinarians used an air gun to inject antibiotics, but the wounds might not be repairable and could have kept it from feeding. 

NOAA Fisheries consider the days after a calf is born critical and vulnerable for both mom and offspring.

"Law requires staying away at least 500 yards by air, including drones, and by sea. The protection of these animals is in the hands of all mariners on the water and all businesses that service those vessels. Stay educated, remain alert, and slow down while traveling through areas where right whales are found," NOAA said in a report.

People with information about right whale sightings should call 877-942-5343.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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