SAVANNAH - U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Adrian Nichols has never seen a right whale, but when she does she'll be ready for it.
"I was on a buoy tender for a while and was so disappointed not to see one," Petty Officer Nichols said. "We take their welfare very seriously."
Petty Officer Nichols is first in a complicated line of defense set up by a variety of agencies to protect right whales from ships.
The rarest of all large whales, the right whales are now moving into their winter home off Georgia and Florida.
This year is a make or break year for the North Atlantic populations of right whales; there are only about 350 of the whales left.
Historically, collisions with ships have been the leading cause of death for the slow-moving, shallow-diving adult right whales, said Chris Slay, a whale researcher with the New England Aquarium.
Now, when a whale is spotted by a ship or by crews flying daily whale watch surveys, Petty Officer Nichols and her Navy counterpart, Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike Stone, are notified. They put out a bulletin that reaches ships at sea within 200 miles of Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla.
The bulletin tells military and commercial ships the location, speed and movement direction of a whale.
Ships then have time to steer around the area where the whales are, so collisions can be avoided.
"So far, it's working like a charm," said Barb Zoodsma, marine biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.