Right Whale, © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock

A Place in the Sun for Right Whales

The Fifth Annual Right Whale Festival took place in Jacksonville Beach, Florida on Saturday, November 23. Hosted by Sea-to-Shore Alliance and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the festival is a community event that celebrates the annual return of the North Atlantic right whales to their calving grounds in the waters of the Southeastern U.S.

Right whale mother & calf, © FFWCC

Right whale mother & calf (© Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759)

An endangered species, only about 500 of these whales remain in the wild. They face serious threats to their survival from busy shipping lanes and fishing gear entanglement. The festival is aimed to help visitors learn more about right whales, their challenges, and their recovery.

The Florida Defenders of Wildlife team went down to participate, and we set up a booth and a special “make & take” arts and crafts table where children (and some adults!) decorated their own whale fluke cut-outs. Visitors learned about the many local and national efforts to protect these critically endangered whales from extinction and how we can lessen human impacts. Included at the event were educational displays, speaker presentations, children’s activities, live music, food, a 5K run and a beach clean-up.

This was my second year at the event. The weather, bright and sunny with a hint of a fall breeze in the air, couldn’t have been better. The location is beautiful, right on the beach, where right whales are often seen off the coast! Everyone I met at the event was a pleasure to talk to and interested in learning about the right whale and all of the other wildlife species we work hard to protect every day. I even met a few soon-to-be college graduates from the University of South Florida (my alma mater) who are interested in interning with our office next year. It’s great to meet students who are inspired by these events and who want to do more to help our endangered species. And as it turns out, the festival was just in time for some very good news for the right whale.

Just two weeks later, the National Marine Fisheries Service made a crucial decision: it finalized a rule to make speed zone protections for North Atlantic right whales permanent!

Right Whales, (c) Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock

Right whales are critically endangered. (© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock)

Speed zones are designated in seasonal management areas that right whales are known to frequent, and vessels over 65 feet in length are required by law to slow down while in these zones. Right whales are slow swimmers, and ship strikes are a leading cause of death for this species. Over the past five years, right whale ship strikes have been eliminated in slow speed zones! The rule is extremely cost-effective, and Defenders of Wildlife worked hard to ensure it not only stayed in place, but became a fixture of right whale conservation measures.

The old speed zone rule had an expiration date, but NMFS chose to make the new rule permanent; it will continue to be monitored for its effectiveness. Though more still needs to be done for right whales, this is a great step towards promoting their recovery.

December is a time when mother right whales and their newborn calves swim, feed and rest in the warm waters off the coast of Georgia and Florida. This year’s youngsters will soon swim north with their mothers on their very first migration through permanently protected waters. What a great way to end 2013!


 Shannon Miller, Florida Program Coordinator