BY SUMMER TEAL SIMPSON
Every autumn, the female right whale frequents the temperate waters of the Georgia Bight, a stretch of shallows adjacent to the Georgia and Florida coasts. After nearly a one-year gestation period and a more than 1,400 mile journey south averaging six miles per hour, this is where the mother will birth her calf. She will nurse her newborn for a full year and then reserve one more year to fatten for the next pregnancy. The calving season spans Nov. 15-April 15, with peak calving season December through March
The Right Whale was named because it was supposedly the “right” whale to hunt, for the oil lucratively harvested from her blubber. She was easy prey due to her tempered and shallow group swim and the thick layer of blubber that kept her afloat postmortem — thus facilitating retrieval. Large-scale whaling began in the 11th Century, and by the mid-1500s, sailors would travel as much as 3000 miles a year in search of the profitable kill. Centuries later, American whalers continued the tradition, harvesting whale bones for corsets, umbrellas and whips until the late 1800s when it was no longer commercially viable. By this time, the North Atlantic right whale was near extinction. Where they once numbered hundreds of thousands, there remained only a few dozen.
The precarious state of this baleen whale comes at odds with countless seafaring industries and competing uses of the bustling Atlantic seaboard, none more alarming to critics than the U.S. Navy’s proposed Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), which could be in operation off the Georgia/Florida coast as early as 2013.
The Navy faced a string of court defeats in Hawaii and California over its use of sonar to hunt submarines in training simulations, but appealed those decisions.Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Navy’s professed national security imperative to continue sonar testing.There is conclusive evidence that sonar affects a number of other marine mammals, many of which inhabit the Georgia Bight, home to 43 marine mammal species. According to NOAA documents, “Over the past 12 years, there have been five stranding events coincident with military mid-frequency sonar use.”During these incidents, strandings were reported for as many as 12, 14 and 17 beaked whales, Minke whales and various dolphin species, respectively. Many of the dead whales had auditory structural damage, hemorrhaged ears, blood clots, bleeding eyes, brain injuries, kidney lesions and congestion in the lungs. Many were found to have nitrogen bubble formation, similar to what might be expected in decompression sickness.
As many marine mammals rely on sonar for navigation, it has been presumed that whales affected by the naval sonar lost their bearings entirely or were frantic to escape the noise, rushing to the surface too quickly.“Georgia and Florida’s marine life and fisheries are too important for the Navy to build a sonar testing range before adequately assessing its impacts. And while the danger to all marine mammals in the vicinity of the proposed training range is concerning, the case of right whales is imperative because every single loss may doom the species to extinction,” cautions Will Berson, senior policy analyst for the coastal office of the Georgia Conservancy.
“I do not believe that the Navy’s current mitigation measures adequately address our obligations to these whales.” CS
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