Nine right whale calves spotted in Atlantic Ocean: researchers

Click to play video: 'Nine rare whale calves spotted in North American waters'
Nine rare whale calves spotted in North American waters
Watch: Nine rare North Atlantic right whale calves have been spotted in North American waters. The population of right whales has been declining for more than a decade. But as Nathalie Sturgeon explains, researchers see this as a positive sign for the endangered species. – Jan 2, 2023

Researchers along the Atlantic Ocean say there have been nine North Atlantic right whale calves spotted this season, a positive sign for the aquatic giant described as one of the “most endangered whales.”

Since 2017, 92 North Atlantic right whales have died in what NOAA Fisheries and other researchers described as an “unusual mortality event.” Thirty-one of them died in 2017.

In 2022, NOAA Fisheries reported that six whales died.

Moria Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute, said many years ago those whales moved into the Gulf of St. Lawrence because of climate change and food scarcity, but there were no protection measures for them.

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“It’s really the same thing that threatens them throughout their range, vessel strikes, and entanglement in fixed fishing gear,” she said. “Vessel strikes with large vessels are more likely… more often fatal.”

Freeing any whale from entangled fishing gear is both difficult and dangerous, she explained. Those working to free a whale from gear need both the weather and the sometimes-154,000 pound animal to cooperate.

But there is a glimpse of hope in the calving season, according to Brown.

Nine calves have been born and spotted in the Atlantic ocean.

“It’s kind of interesting. The first eight are mostly older mothers in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “Some of those moms haven’t had a calf for a range of seven to 12 years, so it was really good to see them come back into motherhood.”

Meet the whales and their calves

Medusa, a 41-year-old mother, has birthed her seventh calf.

Medusa, 41. NOAA Fisheries

Smoke, 27, has been spotted with her fourth calf.

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Smoke, 27. NOAA Fisheries

Aphrodite, 36, has also been spotted with her seventh calf.

Aphrodite, 36. NOAA Fisheries

War, who is 35, has birthed her seventh calf.

War, 35. NOAA Fisheries

Viola, 33, has birthed her fourth calf.

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Viola, 33. NOAA Fisheries

Porcia, 21, has had her third calf.

Porcia, 21. NOAA Fisheries

Whale 1711, 36, has been spotted by researchers with her fourth calf.

Whale 1711, 36. NOAA Fisheries

Archipelag, 20, has had her third calf.

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Archipelag, 20. NOAA Fisheries

At least one other whale, who is only about 10 years old, has also birthed a calf but it hasn’t been published yet in a scientific journal, according to Brown.

More calves needed

She said right whales can technically produce a calf every three years, but if a whale has been impacted by an entanglement or has had trouble finding food, they will require more than the traditional year needed to recover from a birth.

Generally, while nine calves are a positive sign, it doesn’t mean the right whale population is recovering yet, Brown said, adding that one season doesn’t “make or break the population.”

“Really for this population to start recovering, 30, 40, 50 calves a year would be better,” said Brown in an interview Monday. It has been more than a decade since researchers have seen those numbers.

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Brown said there is substantial effort to help save this population of whales.

“We’re also training teams in Shippagan, of snow crab fishermen, training biologists in Tadoussac to respond to entangled whales because it’s such a big territory and we’ll continue working together … but right now we have two apprentice teams.”

She said the best people to help right whales are those who work along the Atlantic Ocean. Federal law requires vessels, paddle boarders, and aircraft – including drones – to stay at least 500 yards, or at least five football fields, away from right whales.

Many large vessels are required to slow down in areas where right whales are present.

“Canada has done a really good job of putting measures in place to reduce the risk of vessel strikes and gear entanglement,” Brown said.

To learn more about the hundreds of North Atlantic right whales and their history, visit the New England Aquarium.

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