RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - In a hopeful sign for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, a newly born right whale calf has been spotted off the coast of North Carolina.
There have been 17 documented right whale calves in the 2020-2021 calving season, which typically runs from mid-November through mid-April. It is the best calving season for these endangered mammals since 2015. Only 22 calves were observed in the previous four calving seasons combined.
This most recent right whale calf was seen on March 11 off the coast of Lea-Hutaff Island, North Carolina by an aerial survey team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium conducting right whale research.
The mother whale has been identified as catalog #3593 (she does not have a nickname). This elusive right whale was first seen in 2005 and has not been seen since 2015, which is unusual for a species that is researched yearly. Until now, scientists did not know the sex of the whale. Now that she has a calf, researchers can safely assume she is a female, and a first time mom!
Every winter, these right whales migrate south to the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida to have their calves. In coming weeks with the arrival of spring, this mother/calf pair and other right whales will be migrating north to their spring/summer feeding grounds off the coast of New England and Canada.
The whales will pass east of Virginia on their migration journey, and boaters off the coast should slow down to 10 knots or less to prevent ship strikes.
Each calf represents a new hope for this critically endangered species, whose numbers have declined from about 483 whales in 2010 to an estimated 366 today. This decline is due to human activity, specifically entanglements in lobster/crab fishing gear and boat strikes. An “unusual mortality event” has been declared since 2017 with the death of 34 right whales in four years. An additional 15 whales are considered “seriously injured” and likely to die from their injuries.
In early March, a right whale nicknamed “Cottontail” was found dead off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was seen entangled in heavy fishing rope in October 2020, and disentanglement efforts were unsuccessful.
Another right whale was seen alive but entangled in fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Massachusetts this week. This female right whale is nicknamed “Snow Cone”, and was partially disentangled by the Center for Coastal Studies. Rescuers removed 300 feet of rope from the whale. Unfortunately, researchers believe rope remains stuck in her mouth. Snow Cone has been added to the list of seriously injured whales in the ongoing unusual mortality event. Snow Cone was a mother last year, but her calf was tragically killed in a ship strike off the coast of New Jersey.
One of the 17 right whale calves born this winter was killed when it was accidentally struck by a boat in February near St. Augustine, Florida. Boaters must stay at least 500 yards away from these endangered whales and should slow down in areas where whales may be present.
NOAA is considering additional rules to protect these critically endangered whales.
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