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Are whale sightings common off the Southeastern North Carolina coast?

A female right whale swims with her calf off Wrightsville Beach on Dec. 30, 2004. StarNews file photo.

Q. Some friends and I were having a girls’ weekend at South Topsail Beach, and we saw a whale! It spouted several times and we saw its tail three or four times as well. Is that common here? What kind of whale could it have been?

A. “The answer is that depending on the season, we will have both right whales and humpback whales that come into our near-shore waters,” said Ann Pabst, a professor of biology and marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, as well as the co-director of the university’s marine mammal stranding program. “We think that juvenile humpback whales are feeding in the mid-Atlantic during the winter, and right whales are likely migrating from their summer feeding grounds to winter calving grounds.”

Humpback whales can be identified by their very long, white fore-flippers, while right whales are characterized by lumpy patterns on their heads, known as callosities.

With no photos or identifying characteristics, Pabst is unable to speculate on the breed of the whales you spotted, but said there have been reports of right whales off of Wrightsville Beach as recently as a few days ago.

Both right and humpback whales are endangered. The right whale is the most critically endangered whale in the U.S. Atlantic waters, Pabst said.

“We need to keep our distance and help protect those species,” she said. “But they are great and wonderful to see in our coastal waters.”

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Kate Combs

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One Response to “ Are whale sightings common off the Southeastern North Carolina coast?”

  1. On November 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm Jo O'Keefe wrote:

    Today while talking to Erin Cunningham in Dr. Pabst’s office at UNCW, I learned that the callosities are found only on the heads of right whales. They appear to be diagnostic, that is, a give-away as to species. Unless the women visiting saw more than spouting and the tail, they will be unable to know which species they saw.