Byline: TERESA STEPZINSKI
ST. SIMONS ISLAND - Cpl. Ron Harris and ranger Wil Smith carefully scanned the rolling dark-green swells Friday, hoping to glimpse a sliver of black amid the waves of the shipping channel 9 miles off St. Simons Island.
They strained to hear a rough gust of breath that would signal a northern right whale had breached the surface.
But the only sound that greeted the two Georgia Department of Natural Resources law enforcement officers was the deep baritone horn of the channel marker buoy bobbing in the 5-foot swells that slapped their patrol boat.
The only thing they saw was mottled shadows reflecting the gun-metal gray skies overhead.
It was both good news and bad news, Harris said.
"It's good, because there are no whales in the ship channel that could be hit by a vessel. But it's bad, because there aren't that many right whales left anymore," Harris said.
The waters off Georgia and Northeast Florida are the only known calving grounds for the northern right whale, which is a critically endangered species.
There are an estimated 300 right whales remaining. From November through March, mother whales and their calves winter in the coastal waters close to commercial shipping lanes and some fishing grounds.
During that time, Harris and Smith, along with other Natural Resources officers, patrol the waters and shipping channel along the 118-mile Georgia coast, on the lookout for whales.
All department officers are deputized with the authority to enforce federal laws, which means they routinely patrol beyond the state's territorial 3-mile limit.
A mother and calf were recently seen swimming by the channel marker, Harris said.
"We mostly see mothers and calves down here," he said. "They are so pretty. It's really cool to see them. They aren't aggressive at all. They just mind their own business."
In the same area a couple of weeks ago, Natural Resources Cpl. Jesse Cook positioned his patrol boat between a whale and a passing cargo ship to ensure that a safe distance was maintained between the animal and vessel.
Both whale and ship passed without incident. Cook also radioed the whale's coordinates to maritime authorities so other vessels could avoid the whale, too.
"Whales can be anywhere. ... They are very hard to see in the water during the day, and no way to see them at night," Harris said. "They move kind of slow, and mostly they just go about their business and ignore most everything around them, including ships."
Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear are the primary causes of death for right whales, which migrate along the East Coast of the United States, biologists have said.
Recent incidents off Georgia and the Northeast illustrate the vulnerability of the gentle behemoths.
On Dec. 30, a 41-foot right whale was discovered dead in the water about 20 miles off Jekyll Island. The 2-year-old whale had deep propeller wounds from head to tail. Researchers concluded the animal had died as the result of collision with a ship.
It was the sixth whale found dead last year along the Eastern seaboard, records showed.
On Jan. 15, a 45-foot right whale entangled in nylon rope was discovered swimming about 13 miles off the Georgia coast.
Natural Resources biologists were unable to disentangle it, but managed to attach a satellite tracking buoy to the dangling line. …