At the end of fall, and with the winter months approaching, some Nantucketers plan their migration to warmer weather for a few months. They aren’t the only mammals planning to head south. North American right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups.
Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from the feeding grounds in colder waters to the shallow, coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These waters in the southern United States are the only known calving area for the species.
Nantucket’s love affair with the North Atlantic right whale started very early on. Agriculture and shepherding produced poor results on the Island, so the English turned to whaling, which, in the span of a few decades, revolutionized the economy of the island.
Hiring predominantly Wampanoag crews, English settlers began shore whaling in small boats around 1690. Settlers pursued the North Atlantic right whale, which migrated past the island. It floated when killed, it was a slow swimmer, and rendered a large amount of oil. Whales were sighted from lookout posts dotted along the eastern and southern shore.
Right whales first give birth at an average age of nine to ten years and have a gestation period of approximately one year. Calves are generally born between December and March and are weaned at between eight and seventeen months of age. Females give birth to a single calf every three to five years. At the current rate of reproduction, a female may give birth to between five and six calves over the course of her lifetime. As of February 12, 2020, there have been ten new calves sighted this season.
In the spring, summer, and fall, many of these whales can be found in the waters off Nantucket and further north into Canadian waters, where they feed and mate. In the colder waters, right whales can eat up to 2,500 pounds of zooplankton each day by filtering their prey through the baleen strips that hang from their upper jaw. Last summer, beach goers were thrilled to spot several right whales off the south shore, identifiable by their v-shaped spout.