MELBOURNE, Fla. - Mama whale rolled onto her back, pectoral fins flapping, as her calf hitched a ride on her belly.
"It was really cute," said Julie Albert of the endangered Northern right whale pair she confirmed were spotted Monday off Melbourne Beach.
Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports that Albert runs the Marine Resources Council's right whale monitoring program. The Palm Bay nonprofit group coordinates about 800 volunteers who learn to identify right whales and report sightings to a hotline that warns ship captains of whales in the area.
A few boaters approached a bit too close Monday as the estimated 50-foot-long mother whale and her 20-foot-long calf frolicked about 200 yards offshore, just north of the Barrier Island Center.
So Albert urged boaters to keep their distance and to watch out for right whales making their way back north. Federal law requires staying at least 500 yards from the whales, thought to number only about 400 individuals.
"Not only do we not want propellers cutting them up, but we also don't want mothers ... if they perceive a threat, to hurt people," Albert said.
No right whale had been sighted in Brevard in the previous two winters. Albert said the preliminary ID on the mother is right whale #3546 and that she's a first-time mother.
Typically each winter, pregnant right whales swim more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off Canada and New England to South Carolina, Georgia and northeastern Florida, to give birth and nurse their young.
Early whalers gave them their name because they were the "right" whales to kill. They swim slowly and close to shore and float when dead, making them easy to hunt. They yielded large amounts of oil and baleen — an elastic substance once used in buggy whips and women's corsets.
Ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear are among the species' biggest threats.
But whale advocates worry powerful underwater sonic blasts for naval training and seismic tests to search for oil and gas could harm the species, as well as other marine mammals in the South Atlantic.
Right whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To lessen risk of collisions between the whales and boats, federal law requires vessels 65 feet long and greater to slow to 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. That includes the calving and nursery area in the Southeastern U.S.
Federal law also bans approaching or remaining within 500 yards of right whales either by watercraft or by aircraft.
NOAA and its partners use planes to fly over the coast of Northeast Florida and Georgia from December through March, and throughout the year in New England waters. The information from these aerial surveys is used to alert boaters of the presence of right whales, allowing ships to alter their course to avoid potential collisions with the whales.
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