Survey flights search for right whale badly cut by boat propeller

A right whale that was been injured by a boat propeller swims in the Atlantic Ocean off Hilton Head Island on Jan. 20. EcoHealth Alliance, NOAA Permit #594-1759

A three-year-old right whale is out there with its back torn up by a boat propeller. An aerial wildlife survey team is trying to find it again, more than a week after the last sighting off Hilton Head Island.

The gaping wound looks like a Frankenstein scar diagonally down the back. But when the whale was last spotted on Jan. 20, it was not struggling and didn’t seem to be behaving abnormally.

“It’s definitely a very serious injury. Many whales with injuries not as severe have not survived,” said Dianna Schulte, of EcoHealth Alliance, the group that conducts whale survey flights off South Carolina each winter. But the apparent health of the whale has observers hopeful it might make it, she said.

The team flew today after bad weather kept it out of the air for several days, but didn’t spot the whale.

The right whale is the rare giant of the Atlantic, a 40-ton, 50-foot-long mammal that whalers nearly wiped out in the 19th century. Only about 400 are known to exist today — so few that researchers consider every whale vital to the survival of the species. Ship strikes are considered a leading threat.

The EcoHealth team first spotted the whale Jan. 15, uninjured, south of Savannah and travelling south. The team issued a maritime alert of the creature’s presence and position, Schulte said. When they saw it again 10 days later, about 15 miles southeast of St. Helena Sound, the back had been sliced at least 14 times by the propeller, she said. The cuts are deep enough that she suspects the propeller also was damaged.

“It’s discouraging it happened after we called it in,” she said. “But, accidents happen.”

The whale is among 14 individual right whales, including a mother and calf, that have been spotted in South Carolina waters so far this year. They travel back and forth from their summer feeding grounds off New England to calve in the warmer winter waters off the Southeast coast.

The rules to protect them are disrupting ocean traffic. Shipping and ports interests fought a federal rule first enforced in 2008 that slows down large ships within 23 miles of the coast when the whales are around. Shippers say the slowdown costs millions of dollars and the whales are rarely struck.

The size of the propeller gouges indicates that this strike was not a large commercial vessel, Schulte said.