Injured right whale calf spotted off Georgia, lifting survival hopes

Calf with wounds from an apparent boat strike was seen nursing, behaving ‘normal’
An injured endangered right whale calf was seen about 20 nautical miles off Sapelo Island, Ga., on Feb. 1, 2024.

Credit: Georgia DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359

Credit: Georgia DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359

An injured endangered right whale calf was seen about 20 nautical miles off Sapelo Island, Ga., on Feb. 1, 2024.

A severely injured endangered right whale calf thought to have little chance to live was spotted off the Georgia coast last week, boosting experts’ hopes that the animal might beat the odds and survive.

In early January, fishermen near Edisto Island saw the unnamed calf with deep wounds from an apparent boat strike. But last week, the same calf and its mom, Juno, were spotted about 20 nautical miles off Sapelo Island by a survey flight from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.

After it was located from the air, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boat crew approached the animal to assess its health, the agency said.

A right whale named Juno (top) and its injured calf (bottom) were photographed about 20 nautical miles off Sapelo Island, Ga., on Feb. 1, 2024.

Credit: Georgia DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359

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Credit: Georgia DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359

What they saw was surprising: The calf, estimated to be 10 weeks old, was slightly thinner than ideal, but it was nursing and “behaving as a normal calf would,” DNR senior wildlife biologist Jessica Thompson said.

“Most of the time, young individuals that are hit by boats like this do not typically survive,” she said.

The calf’s survival would be a boost to the entire species.

North Atlantic right whales are among the rarest large whale species on Earth, with only an estimated 360 individuals left. Boat strikes and fishing gear entanglements are the greatest threats to the animals, but climate change is also thought to be contributing to their shrinking population.

And the waters off the Southeast coast are key to the fight to save them from extinction. Each winter, the animals migrate from the North Atlantic to warmer waters off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to calve.

So far this year, 17 calves have been seen along the Southeast coast, but two of them were not with their mothers in later sightings, and scientists now assume they are deceased.

A total of 15 is far from the worst calving total in recent years — there were zero spotted in 2018 — but experts say it’s far fewer than the 50 newborns that are needed annually to allow the population to recover.

While hopes are high that Juno’s calf will pull through, Thompson cautioned that the coming months will be critical.

Soon, the whales will begin making the long journey back north to their feeding grounds off the coasts of New England and Canada.

The calf will also need to demonstrate the ability to feed on its own. Right whales wean their young after about one year, at which point the animals have to forage on their own. Thompson said it’s possible the boat strike caused such severe damage to the bones and muscle on the calf’s head that it won’t be able to feed, but time will tell.

From now until April, Thompson said boaters of all kinds should continue to exercise caution in the waters off the Georgia coast and other Southeastern states while whales could be in the area.

“As stewards of this incredible coast ... be mindful that they’re down here and go as slow as safely possible,” she said.


A note of disclosure

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