January 18, 2006

Rare Whales Make Surprise Visit to Texas Coast

By Jim Forsyth

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Researchers were surprised this week by the sudden appearance -- and quick disappearance -- of two rare Northern right whales in the busy industrial port of Corpus Christi Bay.

"It's a most extraordinary event," said oceanographer Tony Amos of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas.

"They're almost unknown in the Gulf of Mexico. Why they would come into the bay, I don't really know."

Amos said a 50-foot (15-meter), 60-ton adult female and her 15-foot (5-meter) baby calf apparently became lost and popped up on Monday in the bay, which is protected from the Gulf of Mexico by a narrow barrier island.

The calf appeared to be suffering from two slash injuries possibly caused by a ship's propeller, and Amos said the biggest threat to them now was a serious injury from shipping traffic.

By Wednesday, mother and calf were nowhere to be seen, raising hopes their low-frequency sonar helped them find their way home.

"One has to assume that because we haven't seen them they have actually left the bay and the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and are back out in the Gulf," Amos said.

The right whale got it name because 19th century fishing ships considered the huge, slow moving creatures to be the 'right whale' to hunt. They have been nearly hunted out of existence.

Fewer than 1,000 are believed to exist, and those tend to spend their winters in warm Gulf stream waters off the Atlantic coasts of Florida and Georgia.

Officials say they are common in large bays, but are nearly unknown along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Right Whales have been known even to travel up rivers and are frequently found in large estuaries. Their last reported visit to the Texas coast was in 1972, when a single whale beached itself near Freeport.