Rare, imperiled right whales will be offshore soon. A few lucky boaters might catch a glimpse of what could be the few left of the species.
After an encouraging rebound over the past few decades, the Northern right whales' calving appears to have taken a turn for the worse. Fewer females are surviving long enough to breed. Ship strikes and line entanglements, long considered huge threats to the species, continue to occur.
Fourteen of the whales — which migrate between Northeast and Southeast coasts — were found dead in waters off Canada and Cape Cod last summer. Nearly all of them had been killed by strikes or entanglements, according to the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island, where the forensics took place.
Only about 450 Northern right whales are known to exist, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only about 100 of them are mature females — half the number there were 10 years ago. Females are disappearing at a point where every whale is considered critical to the species' survival.
"This species is presently in dire straits," said Richard Pace, a NOAA whale researcher.
"Right now we are seeing more whales killed each year than the number of new calves born, and if we don't reverse this trend soon, they could go extinct within our lifetime," said Christin Khan, a NOAA fisheries biologist.
Right whales are the rarest of the large whales. They can come within a few miles of the South Carolina coast.
They are massive 40-ton creatures that one observer described as breathtaking. Their curious two-plume breathing spray and the lack of a dorsal fin distinguish them from other whales.
They migrate and calve so close to the East Coast they can be spotted from beaches in Florida. The proximity has become deadly.
Females pass or calve off the South Carolina coast each winter, coming down from the Northeast summer feeding grounds. They traverse major shipping channels, through waters getting more heavily trafficked by both commercial and military crafts.
Hunted to the brink of extinction a century ago, the whales began to make a tentative comeback in 1990 due to close monitoring by NOAA and contracted survey groups, as well as heightened awareness among mariners. By 2010, the numbers had grown from 270 to 482, according to NOAA.
The rebound peaked in 2009, when 39 new calves were spotted, according to the Society for Marine Mammalogy, a nonprofit advocate for marine mammal science.
But just as the species seemed to be turning the corner, the population started to collapse. Last winter, only three mother and calf pairs were spotted off the Southeast coast — an alarmingly small number — despite researchers flying over all South Carolina waters for the first time since 2012, trying to find more. None were spotted here.
The year was the second worst for sightings since research started in the early 1980s, said wildlife biologist Clay George of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
The three pairs followed the sightings of 14 calves in 2015-16, and a low of 11 in 2014-15. By then, the number of births over a four-year span had dropped to less than half the number in the previous four years, reversing the steady trend of increasing births.
"At present, they are among the most endangered whales in the world," the Marine Mammal society notes on its website.
"We need to immediately reduce the number of whales that are becoming entangled in fishing gear and struck by vessels in order to allow this species to recover," Khan said.
Even that might not be enough. As waters warm in a changing climate, the plankton the whales feed on is diminishing and they might be shifting their grounds, working harder to find more food. If females become too taxed, their fertility drops, biologists say.