A whale surveying team enjoyed a rare sight yesterday, as a right whale gave birth as they watched from a small plane. It was only the second time that a birth had been observed in this species, but the excitement was tempered a bit by the fact that it took place about ten miles from the border of the contentious Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) being planned by the Navy off the Florida coast. Navy planners have assumed that most whales would be in the designated critical habitat closer to shore, and about 30 miles from the USWTR–still close enough to hear sonar, and perhaps slightly affect behavior, but far enough that relatively few whales would likely react. The Navy knew that some whales could be closer or even in the range at times, but this is the first dramatic encounter so close to the range. An article in the Florida Times-Union provides a good sense of the excitement, and the concerns:
The Florida-Georgia coast is the only known calving ground for right whales, which gather each winter after traveling from New England and Canada. From a total population of about 450, more than 100 whales migrated to the area this winter. Environmental advocates, who have warned that ship traffic and sonar use at the training range could imperil the whales, said the discovery reinforces their concerns. “The Navy needs to go back to square one and reconsider,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States. The group is one of several that sued in January to challenge the training range plans.
Although whales are usually reported in shallow waters closer to shore, the Navy’s range project manager said some were expected to be in and around the training area. “The fact that there’s a birth was something a little unexpected. We all agree it’s a good thing,” said Jene Nissen, the project manager. He said the discovery would become part of a body of research that will factor into decisions about use of the range that is planned about 50 nautical miles – 58 miles – east of Jacksonville.
As outlined in preliminary plans issued last year, the Navy has agreed to slow its ships during the months that right whales are in the region, in order to minimize the risk of ship strikes, but so far it has rebuffed options that include setting the annual sonar training schedule so as to also avoid those months. Up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises are planned per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each). See these earlier posts for more details.