Last Gulf sighting of mammal was reported in 2006

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — The first North Atlantic right whale spotting during this calving season was not where scientists expected to see it.

The endangered species was spied swimming just off a sandbar in Panama City Beach on Monday, late in the season for a first sighting anywhere, much less the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was right off shore,” said Neal Hart, who took photos of the whale from his 15th story balcony of his Sterling Breeze condominium. “We watched it just pass the second sandbar — we swim out there when it’s warmer — and you could see it stir up big clouds of sand. To see one that close to the beach for goodness’ sake — it was amazing.”

While female right whales travel from the coasts of Canada and New England to the south to give birth during the winter, normally they stay in the Atlantic Ocean.

The last time one was spotted in the Gulf of Mexico was 2006, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s a pretty substantial data point for us,” said Barb Zoodsma, right whale biologist for NOAA Fisheries, Southeast Region.

Since Dec. 1, NOAA has been surveying for right whales in the southeast region without luck. Sightings have also become scarce in the St. Lawrence River in Canada and off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, places where the whales are more common.

“They’re not being seen in too many places right now,” Zoodsma said. “It’s pretty desperate. We don’t know where they are.”

Scientists estimate there are 458 North Atlantic right whales left, and that number is likely dropping. Net entanglements are on the rise, according to Zoodsma, and females are having fewer and fewer calves as they wait longer to breed between calves.

The whales are also becoming harder to find. The recent severe weather may be a factor — either through making the whales harder for surveyors to count or by changing their behavior — but they are also seeing them in different locations than normal, as evidenced by the Panama City Beach sighing.

“It’s unclear if it’s an unusual, rare sighting or it’s part of a larger picture of them being in different places, or is it related to the weather and the animals looking for protected waters?” Zoodsma said.

To continue to figure out the puzzle of where the whales are and why, Zoodsma said it is important for people like Hart to continue to call in sightings.

“If you see them, they’ll be jet black with no dorsal fin,” she said. “You’ll see them swimming, and they’ll look like a black bus with a roof sticking out of the water just plowing along.”

They also have a distinctive white patch on their heads.

Sightings can be reported to NOAA Fisheries at 1-877-WHALE-HELP or the U.S. Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16.

Katie Landeck is a reporter for The Panama City (Fla.) News-Herald.