Among the tourists heading south this time of year are 40-ton visitors you might spot from a North Carolina beach.
Humpback whales migrating from New England and Canada to breeding grounds in the West Indies have become regular sights in Carolinas waters in December and January.
The whales often swim close to shore, and observers say sightings this year have seemed unusually numerous. The humpbacks seen here are among populations removed from the endangered species list in October because their numbers are growing.
Known for their spectacular lunges from the sea, called breaches, and the graceful arc of 15-foot-wide tail flukes rising over the water as the animals dive, humpbacks can put on quite a show.
“I consider it a treat every time I see one,” said Mike Remige, director of Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, who has had humpbacks breach beside him as he surfs in winter.
In mid-December, Remige and others watched as a pod of eight to 12 humpbacks loitered for a couple of hours off the end of the 1,000-foot pier.
“They were feasting on something – based on what we’ve seen in the area, probably brown shrimp – and were not going to leave until it was gone,” he said. Humpbacks can each eat a ton and a half of food a day.
Don’t head for the coast just to spot a whale – North Carolina sightings aren’t regular enough to support whale-watching cruises – but observant visitors are sometimes rewarded. The whales pass through again in March and April, heading north to feed for the summer.
Allan Libby, director of tourism and public information for Surf City, north of Wilmington, doesn’t need binoculars to see them from his oceanfront office. By mid-December he had sighted whales eight times in a two-and-a-half-week period.
“What I have seen is a lot more activity than we have in the past,” Libby said. “I don’t know the reason. We’ve had a lot of good fishing later in the fall, so they could be following fish.”
Humpbacks seen off the Carolinas are part of what federal officials call the Gulf of Maine stock, which were estimated in 2008 to total 823 animals (among an estimated 11,500 across the North Atlantic). Gulf of Maine whales were among nine populations that were removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act this year.
Removing humpbacks from the list “means they’re doing well, and along with that it means we’re seeing a whole lot more calves,” said Bill McLellan, coordinator of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program at UNC Wilmington.
“The moms are moving south with this year’s calf and will give birth in the Caribbean this winter. So calves spend the winter here feeding on menhaden and such.”
Seven other whale species have been seen in Carolina waters, the North Carolina Aquarium says, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Right whales, so named by whalers because of the high yields of oil their blubber produced, were hunted close to extinction in the 1800s. Federal experts estimated that only 476 animals survived in 2011.
An international moratorium, in place since the mid-1980s, has helped most species slowly recover from the commercial whaling that decimated them. But humans, inadvertently, still plague whales – killing or seriously wounding about nine Gulf of Maine humpbacks a year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
Ship strikes are a major threat to right whales, which often cruise in shipping lanes. Much more often, whales get wrapped in fishing gear that cut into their flesh, leading to infections, starvation and drownings.
One study of Gulf of Maine humpbacks estimated that up to two-thirds had been entangled at some point. More than 300,000 whales and dolphins a year die from entanglements, the International Whaling Commission said in citing a recent report.
A corps of trained volunteers up and down the Atlantic coast respond when possible.
Keith Rittmaster, natural science curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, got a call the morning of Oct. 26 about an entangled humpback near Beaufort Inlet. Rittmaster boated to the scene while others prepared boats, crews and disentanglement gear.
“I was alone with the whale, a little nervous, and the whale was a little nervous,” he said. The young whale submerged for several minutes, then resurfaced with a burst of energy and lunged away.
Rittmaster’s wife and others later collected the discarded net and found it all there, meaning the whale apparently swam away free.
“The whale might not have been happy,” he said, “but that was one lucky humpback.”
Length: Up to 60 feet
Weight: 25 to 40 tons
Lifespan: About 50 years
Acrobatic displays: Breaching and slapping the water’s surface with long pectoral fins, heads and tails
Diet: Up to 3,000 pounds a day of krill, plankton and small fish
Found: In all oceans, from the equator to sub-polar waters
Gulf of Maine stock: Feeds in waters off Canada and New England in summer, migrating to breed and calve in the West Indies in winter.