Two new North Atlantic right whale calves sighted

So far this season, 19 babies have been born in the Southeast calving area but at least two rare whales have been struck by vessels.
Right whale Catalog #3260 ‘Skittle’ and calf sighted approximately 25 nautical miles off Kure Beach, NC on Feb. 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919/Funded by US Army Corps of Engineers)

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

Right whale Catalog #3260 ‘Skittle’ and calf sighted approximately 25 nautical miles off Kure Beach, NC on Feb. 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919/Funded by US Army Corps of Engineers)

After the death of a year-old right whale early last week, Friday brought welcome news for the highly endangered species. Researchers documented two new calves, bringing the total to 19 babies for the 2023-24 calving season.

North Atlantic right whales are highly endangered, with an estimated 360 individuals remaining. Their only known calving area is the Southeast, including the waters off Georgia, where the temperatures are not too cold for the newborns and not too warm for the blubber-insulated mothers.

On Friday researchers sighted an at least 23-year-old female nicknamed Skittle with a newborn calf off Kure Beach, N.C. This is her second calf. She last gave birth 14 years ago during the 2010 calving season, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission noted in a Facebook post.

That same day, a 19-year-old female nicknamed Dog-ear and calf were sighted off Cape Canaveral, Fla. This is Dog-ear’s first calf.

Both mothers were seen on the calving grounds prior to giving birth. Dog-ear was sighted off Cumberland Island on Jan. 1 and Skittle was sighted five times since January 2 between Wilmington, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

With the current tally of 19 births, this calving season is a productive one so far. Between the years of 2007 and 2022, 15.7 calves were born on average each season, which runs from November through March, the International Fund for Animal Welfare reports. However, this season’s above-average count is tempered by loss and injury. Two mother whales have been seen repeatedly without their calves, which are presumed dead. And the first-born calf of the season was struck by a vessel estimated to be about 35 feet long based on the propeller lacerations on the calf’s head. While it was not killed immediately, its injuries are considered life-threatening. The yearling whale found dead off Tybee last week had suffered skull fractures consistent with a vessel strike, researchers concluded.

NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event for North Atlantic right whales in 2017. The primary causes of the deaths and injuries are entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes in both U.S. and Canadian waters, and currently includes 123 individuals (38 dead, 34 seriously injured, and 51 sublethally injured or ill). Since the Unusual Mortality Event that was declared in 2017, only 9.7 calves have been born on average each season.

NOAA Fisheries has proposed expanding its ship speed regulations, but the recreational fishing industry and harbor pilots, with the support of some elected officials including U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-St. Simons), oppose the extra protections and they have not been finalized.

Public sighting reports can prove important, the Florida FWC reports. “Information from these sightings contribute valuable data points and aid right whale monitoring efforts in the Southeast U.S. calving grounds. Catalog #3590 ‘Dog-ear’ and calf and were sighted and reported by a fisherman,” Florida FWC posted on Facebook. “Photographs collected from Melbourne Beach, Fla., after a public report helped to quickly match the carcass found floating off Savannah, GA to the 2023 calf of Catalog #4340, nicknamed Pilgrim. Please report sightings to 1-877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343), your local volunteer sighting network where possible, or to the USCG on VHF Ch. 16.”

Credit: The Current GA

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Credit: The Current GA


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