By Kathlyn McCluskey
The Northern Right whale is the world's most endangered large whale.
Their only known calving grounds are the shallow coastal waters of Georgia and Florida, from the Altamaha River near Darien to Sebastian Inlet, south of Cape Canaveral. Here the great mother whales come to bear and nurture their young from November through April each year. They remain within five miles of shore, often venturing into the bays and inlets.
When the Spanish discovered St. Simons Island in the 1540s, they called St. Simons Sound "The Bay of Whales" because there were so many mother and calf pairs to be seen. They named Jekyll Island "The Isle of Whales." By 1875, commercial whaling had nearly wiped out the species, and the people of the Golden Isles forgot their heritage of the whales.
In 1984, modern scientists, working with airplane pilot volunteers, rediscovered the Northern Right Whales' calving grounds. In 1993, the calving grounds were declared Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act -
providing protection for the whales under United States law and educational resources to train boaters in safety precautions that can save whales' lives.
Northern Right Whales are devoted mothers, giving birth only every three to five years.
Nursing calves stay with their mothers for a year, migrating back to the summer feeding grounds off New England and Nova Scotia.
Fourteen feet long at birth, Northern Right Whales may grow to 60 feet in length and weigh up to 100,000 pounds. The tail may be 20 feet across. Yet, their smooth, glossy black skin is sensitive and quivers to the gentle touch of a human hand. Most Northern Right Whales have a white patch on their bellies.
Old-time whalers gave these whales their name because they were the "right" whale to catch.
Mother whales are so attached to their calves that whalers would harpoon a calf first, knowing that the cow would stay with her calf until she, too, could be killed.