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Saving Right Whales From 1,000 Feet Above

Feb 25, 2016

Melanie White is on a mission to help save the elusive - and endangered - North Atlantic Right Whale.

"They have been here longer than we have, and there's no reason they shouldn't be able to survive and co-exist with humans," she says.

For a decade now, White has been spending most of her days in cramped planes such as DeHavilland Double Otter, whose twin propellers sputter to life on a cold winter morning on the Southern Georgia coast. Her uniform: a green flight suit and a pair of fingerless gloves.

Melanie White in her "office," the Double Otter
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

White is with Sea to Shore Alliance, a conservation group based in Sarasota. The Double Otter, based out of Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, is provided through an agreement with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The federal government just announced it's expanding protected habitat for the endangered right whales along the Atlantic Coast. It's the latest attempt to protect these gentle creatures, which were almost hunted to extinction by the early 20th Century. 

For years, spotter planes have flown off the coasts of Florida and Georgia - to alert boaters to steer clear of them.  This, day, over the coast of St. Simon's Island, White and another spotter lean out the bubble windows. Nothing but air separates them from the whitecaps frothing 1,000 feet below. Sea gulls are mere white spots on an endless blue expanse.

By 1:15 p.m., the team has flown about 40 miles, from Savannah, Georgia, to just near the Florida state line. They spend a good chunk of the morning traversing the Atlantic Coast in grids called "transects," which means they fly about 25 miles out to sea, turn three miles to the south, and fly back to shore. Again, and again...

After four hours of looking at an empty ocean, they're getting ready to land to re-fuel. But, then White spots a massive splash, betraying a roughly 70-ton right whale named Punctuation - so named for her distinctive markings. She's followed by her calf.

"Is this Punctuation? Yay!," White says over the plane's intercom.

The crew moves with military precision. Amy Warren notes the precise locations on charts, while team leader White gives instructions over the intercom to photographer Marcy Lee, who's nosing her telephoto lens out a window, toward the whale.

"They're directly underneath us, Marcy, maybe too close for a final pass," White says over the intercom. "But Amy, stand by for a final pass."

White radios a support boat working with them to get a closer look at Punctuation. If there are any injuries or fishing lines showing - a pretty common occurrence in these heavily traveled shipping lanes - they may try to attempt some emergency first aid.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

That crew finds that Punctuation doesn't have any "entanglements," so White gets on the "whale hot line" to notify the U.S. Navy. They in turn notify the U.S. Coast Guard and any cargo ships in the area, telling them to be aware and avoid colliding with these gentle creatures.

"Hi, this is Melanie calling from the Georgia Right Whale aerial survey team. I'm just calling to confirm that you did receive our page that just came through of right whales just south of the Brunswick channel."

Observations of right whales started back in 1973, and aerial surveys like this started in the 1980's. Still, scientists have no idea how long they can live or how long these mammals can reproduce.

White says Punctuation has sired eight calves.

Right whales got their name for a good reason - they have a lot of blubber for oil and floated after being harpooned, making them the "right" whale to hunt. By the time they were finally protected from hunting in 1935, their numbers had been reduced to around 100 in the North Atlantic.

Today, right whales remain among the rarest marine mammals on earth - there's only around 600 today.

Searching in an endless expanse...
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

They travel from their feeding grounds off New England and Nova Scotia to breed in the winter in the warmer waters off Georgia and Florida.

White has been doing these surveys for a decade, and still gets a kick out of spotting a whale.

"Every single sighting is so exciting. To see a baby is huge - it helps to continue to grow the population," she says. "If there's anything we can do to help save these whales and let it be known to anyone spending time out in the water, they deserve to be there as much as we do."

With the help of people like her, they might have a fighting chance.