The Southeastern coast of the United States is a critical habitat for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and the Georgetown Airport is playing a small role in important research on these majestic creatures.
With a population believed to number only 356 individuals, right whales are closely monitored and protected by dedicated research organizations, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute’s Right Whale Aerial Survey Team. The team is funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has surveyors assigned to coastal areas of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The SC team, led by Jess McCoppin, is stationed in Pawleys Island and flies almost daily out of the Georgetown Airport from mid-November to mid-April.
“We basically just go up every good weather day in our planes and we’re flying over the ocean on track lines that are set up,” McCoppin said. “We’re looking for any large whales, but specifically North Atlantic right whales.”
The S.C. team consists of McCoppin and two observers, Alayna Robertson and Theresa Ciraolo. So far this season, the project has had three mom and calf pairs, which is especially exciting, McCoppin said. Two of the three were spotted off the S.C. coast.
On flying days, the team spends 8 hours in the air, surveying the length of the S.C. coast to about 30 miles offshore.
“We’re just looking for whales all day. And we see a bunch of other cool stuff, too, like sharks and turtles and dolphins. But it’s the right whales we’re looking for,” McCoppin said. Their purpose is two-pronged.
When they spot a whale, the first thing they do is immediately notify vessels in the area via a team member on the ground. That team member will send out a “whale alert,” which notifies government and commercial boats that a whale is in the vicinity. Vessel strikes are a leading cause of whale mortality, so alerts are aimed at getting vessels to slow down when whales are near and helping prevent such accidents.
The team’s secondary purpose is data collection for long term research initiatives.
“These whales have been in an unusual mortality event since 2017, which basically means a bunch more are dying than usual,” McCoppin explained. “There’s already only 356 left that we know of, so we’re collecting a lot of data on individuals — who is where, what babies are being born to who, and so on.
“The right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species, so every one matters,” McCoppin continued.
On each flight, one team member will be assigned to photograph whales that are spotted. The pilot will circle, allowing the photographer to position right over the whale for the photo. Ideally, they want to be able to shoot from directly overhead, capturing the unique pattern of rough, calcified skin patches found on each right whale’s head. These patches are called callosity and are as unique to a right whale as a fingerprint is to a human, allowing researchers to identify each whale.
Generally two team members go on each flight, while another stays behind to act as the ground contact. While one on the flight photographs, the other acts as data recorder.
A final part of the program’s mission is public awareness and outreach. For many people — even those who live along the coast — they don’t know that right whales live right off shore or that their numbers are so few. The program helps create interest and awareness, as well as public involvement. For example, there is a whale hotline (877-WHALE-HELP) where members of the public can report whale sightings. Individuals can also make reports to the Coast Guard via channel 16 or through the Whale Alert app. McCoppin’s team was able to locate and observe a whale recently thanks to a public report through the hotline.
“If you don’t know what kind of whale it is, that’s fine,” McCoppin said. “Just call it in and they can send an alert out. If we’re flying in the genral area, we can go try to check it out and collect data from the sighting too.”
For anyone who is interested in learning more about the program and/or following along with McCoppin and their team this season, there are several ways to connect.
• The Clearwater Aquarium website has a Right Whale Research page. Check it out at https://mission.cmaquarium.org/research-institute/right-whale-research/.
• Follow the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Facebook. They regularly post photos and updates from the Right Whale program. They recently posted a photo of a mother and calf spotted east of Cumberland Island, Ga.
• The aquarium posts calving updates each season on its website at https://mission.cmaquarium.org/2023-2024-right-whale-calving-season/.
• Learn more about McCoppin and other members of the research team at https://mission.cmaquarium.org/research-institute/cma-research-team/.
• Watch a video on a day in the life of the survey team members at www.facebook.com/ClearwaterMarineAquarium/videos/its-worldwhaleday-follow-along-for-a-day-in-the-life-of-our-right-whale-aerial-s/522250570036648/.
*** Accompanying photo credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Funded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.