A right whale, the rarest of the large whales, was spotted earlier this month off South Carolina's Folly Beach.
Though sightings don't happen often, this isn't the first time one of the 40-ton creatures has been spotted off the Carolina coast. However, this was the first confirmed sighting of a right whale in nearly three years.
The lack of confirmed sightings aren't an indication that right whales aren't present in the area. It's merely that the Georgia-based survey crew that studies them has faced funding setbacks in recent years.
After only seeing a few mother-and-calf pairs farther south, the flight crew decided to venture further up the coast. That's when they spotted Chiminea just five miles off Folly Beach.
Chiminea is a six-year-old right whale that is easily identified by pattern of different-colored markings on its head. The whale was last spotted just three days earlier near Jacksonville, Fla.
"Each of the survey teams has had a handful of sightings, but many of them have been resightings of the same animals," said Cynthia Taylor, Sea to Shore Alliance research scientist.
This year, the Georgia survey team had flown 16 flights before the South Carolina flight and spotted only three mother-and-calf pairs.
With ship strikes, line entanglements, and noise pollution considered the biggest threats, last year federal regulators made a proposal to include waters off the coast in the "critical habitat" calving grounds for the imperiled species.
Additionally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made it a permanent requirement that large ships slow down in right whale waters. These whales are dark-colored and swim slowly near the surface, which makes them difficult to spot but easy to strike.
The area through which they migrate passes through major shipping channels, military training areas, and waters that will potentially be used for oil and natural gas seismic testing and drilling.
Commercially hunted nearly to the brink of extinction, the critically endangered species now numbers 450 to 500 in the north Atlantic Ocean. This rebound is attributed to awareness and conservation efforts.
The unique mammals are known for more than just their large size. A right whale's two-plume breathing spray and the lack of a dorsal fin set it apart from other large whale species.
"With three more months of potential sightings for us here on the calving grounds, I highly suspect more sightings will move in," White said. "We shall see."