So far, the elaborate network of observers in light airplanes and small ships that makes up the whale early warning system has confirmed five right whale sightings.
The goal for the system is to tell ships when whales are in the area so ships can steer around them. This year, the Georgia Ports Authority is funding a paging system that allows observers to communicate with harbor pilots, the Navy, and Coast Guard, who in turn contact commercial ships.
The ports authority "is a vital cog in the whole system," Zoodsma said. "We are very pleased they have contributed in this way."
Strikes by ships and entanglement in some types of fishing gear are the biggest threats to right whales. And although the early warning system has worked well with commercial and military vessels in the calving area, right whales are still being hurt elsewhere.
Slay described a female whale that had been struck by a large yacht or other recreational craft. She suffered "horrible" cuts on her back that did heal.
Such a wound would have killed a calf, Slay said.
The problem is many pleasure boaters coming south in the winter do not realize whales are around, Slay said. He hopes to put up posters in area marinas to warn boaters about right whales.
The right whale is 45 to 55 feet (14 to 17 meters) long and can weigh up to 70 tons. There are three types of related animalsthe North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Oceans right whales.
The North Pacific is most endangered, but the North Atlantic is also in trouble, with only about 350 adults. The Southern Oceans right whale is recovering.
Observers have reported sighting about 100 newborn calves among the Southern right whale herds.
Copyright 2001 The Florida Times-Union