The charter boat captain couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
At first they were just a pair of large, dark lumps in the water. But then, as Captain Rick Barberi eased his 30-foot fishing boat the Marlin Hunter closer Wednesday, he realized those lumps were a pair of rare right whales — a mother and her calf.
“We watched them for about 20 minutes and then they eased on away,” Barberi , who posted a video of the sighting on Facebook, said Thursday. The whales were about 7 miles south of Pensacola Beach, in about 80 feet of water, he said.
What Barberi spotted is something seldom seen in the gulf. Only 400 right whales remain in the wild, of which only 100 are breeding females, and rarely do they ever leave the Atlantic Ocean.
They spend part of the year off the coast of Canada and New England, but from December to March they swim about 1,000 miles down to warmer waters near the Florida-Georgia line to give birth to their calves.
State and federal officials monitor the right whales’ movements to make sure they don’t get tangled in nets or hit by ships. The last time anyone saw this particular mother and its three-month-old calf was a month ago off Key Largo, said Barb Zoodsma, right whale recovery coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A right whale was reported in the gulf two years ago, the last sighting in the gulf. A mother and calf have not been spotted there since 2004. Two mother-and-calf pairs appeared that year. That makes the most recent sighting only the third time a right whale calf has been spotted in the gulf..
“It’s fairly rare,” Zoodsma said.
Thousands of right whales once populated the ocean, but whaling to harvest their oil for lamp fuel nearly wiped them out. Whalers gave Eubalaena glacialis its common name: They were the “right” whale to hunt because they move slowly, migrate near shore and stay afloat after death.
Although right whales have been protected from whaling since 1935, there are so few left that the New England Aquarium has cataloged them all like death row convicts in a mug book.
Thirty right whales died between 2017 and 2019, more than the number of calves born, making them a population in decline.
A parasailer from Destin posted a video on social media on Thursday showing the pair had headed east from Pensacola, apparently paralleling the Panhandle coastline.
Zoodsma said she’s hopeful the wandering pair will head back to the Atlantic soon.
“My anxiety level will go up the longer they stay,” she said, explaining that the gulf’s water temperature may grow too warm for the mother to tolerate it easily.
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Federal regulations call for people to stay 500 yards — the equivalent of five football fields — away from right whales. Zoodsma said if anyone else spots the mother and calf they should call biologists at 1-877-WHALE-HELP. Don’t get close enough to shoot video, she said. Instead, “just back away.”