South Carolina

Hilton Head fishing crew spots rare creature off coast. It was as big as an 18-wheeler

Chip Michalove

Hilton Head charter captain Chip Michalove, also known as the “great white shark whisperer,” has encountered some of the rarest and most spectacular creatures of the ocean during his fishing trips off the Lowcountry coast.

But on Sunday, he was treated to a surprise visit by one of the most monstrous and mysterious marine animals off the coast when a North Atlantic right whale — twice as big as his boat — surfaced near his fishing charter.

“It was all of 50 feet, lots of bottlenose dolphins were swimming around it,” Michalove said. “Fishing was pretty awful Sunday, so seeing that whale really made up for it.”

Michalove, charter captain and owner at Outcast Sport Fishing, said he has seen right whales in the past, but this was the first time he saw one by himself.

Michalove said he kept a safe distance from the whale after it first surfaced and slowly backed away the charter, as it’s illegal to be within 1,500 yards from any right whale, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The North Atlantic right whale is “among the rarest of all large whale species and, indeed, of all marine mammal species,” according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, there are only 411 right whales still alive, according to researchers at the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Of those, only around 100 are females able to reproduce.

Last winter, Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told The Guardian that right whales could be extinct by 2040.

“At the rate we are killing them off, those 100 females will be gone in 20 years,” said Baumgartner told The Guardian.

Right whales got their name because they are slow moving and float after they are killed, making them “the right whale” to hunt. They can grow up to 57 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons, according to NOAA. That’s larger than a typical semi-truck.

Other sightings this winter

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North Atlantic right whales Magnet, top, and Boomerang are spotted southeast of Tybee Island, Georgia. Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA

Right whale sightings are rare but are more common this time of the year in the Lowcountry. The whales migrate once a year from the coast of Newfoundland to Georgia and Florida to calve, according to the Right Whale Listening Network.

A pair of North Atlantic right whales was photographed off Tybee Island earlier in December, marking the beginning of the season where the endangered animals are in warmer Southeastern waters for calving.

Boomerang, who is 23 years old, and Magnet, who is 10, were spotted southeast of Tybee Island by the Sea to Shore Alliance, according to a news release from the NOAA.

“A pair of adult female right whales were a welcome sight following the 2018 season when zero calves were documented,” the news release said.

National Geographic reported that not only were there no documented births last winter but there were at least 17 known deaths.

Collisions with ships and getting tangled in fishing lines are the predominant threats to the giant creatures, researchers say.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium is calling for ships to slow down or be rerouted around critical whale habitats, and it wants the lobster industry to change the breaking strength of its ropes or develop ropeless fishing techniques.

In the debate over seismic testing for oil off the eastern U.S. coast, opponents have cited the risk of noise to endangered wildlife, such as whales.

Where can you see right whales?

A map used to track sightings of the whales indicates two additional recent sightings in the Tybee area about five days after Boomerang and Magnet initially were spotted.

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Chip Michalove

“Because whales swim continuously, exact locations are obsolete within minutes of a sighting. ... The whereabouts of most of the individuals in the population is unknown for much of the year,” NOAA explained in its news release.

Boaters may see the whales breaching the surface of the water and then “crashing back down with a thunderous splash,” according to a NOAA fisheries report. They may also see them slapping their tails or flippers on the water’s surface.

How are whales identified?

NOAA says the North Atlantic right whale has “a stocky black body, with no dorsal fin. Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. The stomach and chest may be all black or have irregular-shaped white patches.”

The whales don’t have teeth. Instead, they feed by filtering minute zooplankton through their baleen, the report explains.

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A North Atlantic right whale known to researchers as Magnet is spotted southeast of Tybee Island, Georgia. Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA

Researchers tell the whales apart by their unique “callosities,” patches of rough skin on their heads that appears white because of whale lice.

The New England Aquarium maintains an online database of each whale’s distinguishing features.

Those lucky enough to encounter a right whale anywhere from North Carolina to Florida may report its location by calling 877-WHALE-HELP, contacting the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16 or logging the sighting via the WhaleAlert iPhone/iPad app.

Chip Michalove of Outcast Sport Fishing — or Hilton Head's "shark whisperer" — started great white season by reeling in three sharks in a day. He said one of those sharks was the "largest white shark (he's) seen," but it didn't make it to the boat.

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