The mammoths of the Atlantic are returning — right into controversy.
The right whale, the almost-extinct ocean legend, is moving into South Carolina waters on its winter calving migration to the Southeast. A whale was spotted last week 15 miles northeast of the Charleston Harbor sea buoy; a second was spotted three days later off DeBordieu in Georgetown County.
Today, a Wildlife Trust team resumes winter whale survey flights off South Carolina, where nearly 40 right whales were spotted in 21 flights last year.
At least nine were considered to have spent the winter here. The state's waters are now considered part of the calving grounds.
The whales are arriving as regulators and shipping interests fight over a new rule that requires ships longer than 65 feet to slow to half speed within 23 miles of the Eastern coastline along the whales' migration route — to protect them from ship strikes.
Shipping interests say it is too costly and not necessary.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled the Navy cannot be forced to turn off high-powered sonar when whales are spotted during training off the California coast.
The ruling could well expand the scope of training the Navy proposes off the East Coast, including a massive sonar training range along the ocean bottom between North Carolina and Florida. That has alarmed conservationists who worry sonar could be deafening and frightening whales into lethal beach strandings.
The right whale is a 40-ton, 50-foot-long creature that whalers nearly wiped out in the 19th century. Fewer than 400 are known to exist, a number so perilously low that researchers consider every living right whale vital to the survival of the species.
Over the past half-dozen years or so, there's been a relatively high number of calves.
"We hope to see a lot more calves out there this year," said Cyndi Taylor, of the trust. "The calving rate of these animals is improving, and that is absolutely what we need to have happen to protect this species."
This year, the survey team has another role. The team will be gauging the effectiveness of the ship slowdown rule, Taylor said.
It used to be a right whale was rarely spotted off South Carolina.
Over the past few years, survey flights and occasional boaters have been surprised by pods of the whales, breaching and rolling and every once in a while coming up to a boat rail for a curious look into an astonished boater's eyes.
"They could easily have knocked us into the ocean. But you got the impression they were very in tune, very intelligent. They were just looking at us and they knew who we were," fisherman George Saville said after whales in 2006 approached an idled boat he was on.