She brought us eight calves and 38 years of survey excitement, and humans brought her death.
A Successful Mother
Female no. 1281, nicknamed Punctuation for a unique pattern of white scars on her head, was a survivor and one of the era’s most successful North Atlantic right whale mothers. Photographed for the first time in 1981 off the coast of Massachusetts, she would shed entanglements in fishing rope five times, survive two minor vessel strikes and raise eight calves over the next 38 years. Punctuation was also a regular in Georgia, even spotted off our coast in 1986 with her first calf.
Her momentous life, however, was shadowed by the pain and disaster that comes far too often to right whales – especially mothers.
In addition to being run over by vessels and getting snagged in fishing rope herself, she outlived at least two of her young and two of theirs due to these same human-created threats. One died from entanglement and the other from a vessel strike. Two of her calves, including a whale seen with deep propeller wounds on its back, simply disappeared. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) estimates that 62 percent of right whale carcasses simply go undetected.
In January 2016, Punctuation gave birth to her final calf – a male seen cruising for the last time near St. Simons Island. Five months later, the calf died off the coast of Massachusetts after being hit by a vessel. In addition, none of the females Punctuation gave birth to are alive today.
In February 2018, a Clearwater Marine Aquarium team flying surveys for DNR photographed Punctuation in a social group with seven other whales about 30 miles east of Jekyll Island. She was not seen with a calf that winter, so it’s unclear why she migrated to the calving grounds of the Southeast. What is clear is that it was her final trip here.
This past summer, Punctuation was seen swimming for the last time in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, more than 1,500 miles from Georgia. A mere two weeks later, her carcass was discovered sliced open and floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
She was hit by a vessel.
Punctuation was not the only casualty that summer. Eight more right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Three were adult females, two of which died due to vessel strikes. Another whale seen entangled but alive in Canada turned up dead off New York later in the year.
Over nearly four decades, Punctuation had been seen at least 250 times along the eastern seaboard. Even in death she stands out as a testament to the dangers right whales face and the growing fear they are heading toward extinction.
Clay George, a senior biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said that at the rate right whales are dying, they could be “functionally extinct by the end of this century.”
“We’ve got to stop killing them, and fast.”
A Dark Past & A Grim Future
Right whales received their name from whalers as they were the “right whales” to kill—easy to harpoon and yielding large amounts of valuable materials. Whale oil was used for fuel and soap, and baleen (pulled from the parts whales use to filter food) gave structure to umbrellas and corsets. Although hunting these whales has been outlawed since the 1930s, the North Atlantic Right Whale population has not recovered.
The Georgia and North Florida coast are the only known right whale calving grounds in the world, which is why they were dubbed Georgia’s state marine mammal. Now one of the rarest of all the great whales, they have an estimated population size of only 420 individuals. Right whales were listed as endangered in 1970 and are protected from disturbance and injury by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Georgia Endangered Wildlife Act of 1973. It’s still not enough.
Biologists with the Wildlife Conservation Section conduct aerial surveys for right whales off Georgia’s coast. Together with partners, Georgia DNR has implemented a detailed educational program targeting commercial shipping ports and military installations such as Naval bases in Georgia and Florida. We also work with port authorities, harbor pilots, Navy, Coast Guard, and Corps of Engineers to protect right whales from collisions with ships.
Help Us Save Our Georgia Giants
Be wise stewards of Georgia’s natural environment and enjoy the outdoors responsibly. If boating off Georgia’s coast from December to April, follow the Guidelines for Navigating in Right Whale Waters. Report right whale sightings by calling 800-272-8363. And donate to The Nongame Program, which works closely with the state of Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service to recover North Atlantic right whale populations. These efforts are necessary for right whales to ever be removed from the Endangered Species list. There are many success stories of populations returning to the landscape, but we must take action in order to have hope for this outcome.