Southern Heroes

Clay George: The Whale Watcher

The Georgia wildlife biologist and his team are on the front line of tracking endangered right whales

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

George after patrolling for right whales.

With only about 425 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet, the species faces a dire future. A combination of unprecedented mortality rates and poor calving seasons in recent years led many to predict right whales would be wiped out in a handful of decades. But Clay George and his team are not the types to fold. A wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, George leads a coordinated effort between a spotter plane in the sky (on loan from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, with a crew of spotters from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida) and boats on the water to survey and sample the highly endangered animals in their calving grounds off the Georgia and Florida coasts each winter. As the Twin Otter plane patrols the ocean, George and his research partner, Trip Kolkmeyer, cruise at fifteen knots in their twenty-foot Zodiac, waiting for the call from above. Once they reach a calf, whether it be three miles from shore or thirty, they take a genetic sample, along with photos to help with future identification. George’s group often works in tandem with a similar team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

photo: Peter Frank Edwards
The spotter crew with the Twin Otter.

Just two years ago, no calves were born, and mortality began increasing as adult whales moved into Canada—where there are fewer regulations on ship speed and fishing gear—to feed, most likely because of warming waters. A bit of good news? Thanks to George and his team, we know there has been a slight uptick in calving this past winter, with ten births counted by early February (and a few more expected). “We can kind of imagine things getting back to normal in terms of calving,” George says. Though there’s a long way to go toward recovery, one thing is certain: George and his team will be keeping a watchful eye, from sunup to sundown. The only thing that can keep them at the dock and on the runway is the weather. “If it’s nice on Christmas Eve,” George says, “we’re out there.”


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