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A ton of joy: Researchers welcome first right whale birth of 2019-2020 calving season

The first North Atlantic right whale baby of the 2019-2020 calving season was spotted off the coast of Georgia this week. 
- Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01
The first North Atlantic right whale baby of the 2019-2020 calving season was spotted off the coast of Georgia this week. - Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01

Researchers are celebrating the first recorded birth of a North Atlantic right whale of the 2019-2020 calving season this week in waters off the U.S. southern coast.

The baby likely has a mass of about a ton but what the newest calf represents carries tremendous weight for the species as a whole, said Moira Brown, a research scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute.

The mom and calf were spotted and photographed together in the only known right whale calving ground, located in a critical-designated habitat roughly between Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Brunswick, Ga., Brown said.

Authorities do aerial surveys of the area during the calving season, which peaks from December through to early February, to monitor the whales and notify mariners of the whales' presence.

The first North Atlantic right whale baby of the 2019-2020 calving season was spotted off Georgia's Sapelo Island. - Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01
The first North Atlantic right whale baby of the 2019-2020 calving season was spotted off Georgia's Sapelo Island. - Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01

Right whales have been hit hard in recent years by reduced birth rates as well as high mortality rates through fatal interactions with human activity.

"Thirty animals lost since 2017," Brown said. "Twenty-one in Canada and nine in the U.S. and ... along with that same time period, in 2018 there weren't any calves seen. (In) 2019, there were only seven. So this is a good start to the season, gives you a little bit of optimism. Obviously, we definitely want more calves than just one."

She said between about 2005 and 2010, researchers were seeing 20 calves a year.

The new mother is known to scientists, identified by the numerical designation 3560.

"It's kind of cool, actually," Brown said. "She was born in 2005, and this is the first calf that we've known her to have." 

The new calf and its mother. - Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01
The new calf and its mother. - Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit # 20556-01

At age 14, she's a little older than the usual first-time right whale mom.

"On average, right whales have their first calf around age nine, so this is the first one we've seen her with. So that's exciting. And there's already been sightings of about five adult females down that way that could potentially be giving birth this year."

The mother has migrated to the Bay of Fundy almost every year since her birth. She's also been seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, dangerous waters for right whales. But their whole migratory journey is fraught with peril.

"It's a long swim from Florida to Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence," Brown said. "These whales are always running the gauntlet along the east coast of North America. It's a very busy coastline and that's why there's so many measures put in place to reduce the risks, especially of strikes and gear entanglement."

Researchers will be keeping as many eyes out as possible to monitor the new whale, whose gender is not yet known.

The mom and calf will be in the Florida area for a couple of months, Brown said, adding that the baby will quickly pack on the pounds from mom's high-fat milk.

"Calves are typically about a ton when they're born," she said. "By the time she gets up here, she could weigh more like five, six tons. They grow and they put on fat pretty fast."

When right whale calves are born, they do not yet have the knobby growths on their heads - called callosities -  that develop in unique patterns allowing researchers to identify each individual whale.

The pattern will erupt over the next few months but up until they're about six months old, they can't be distinguished from others. But they spend all their time with their moms, so that helps researchers keep track of who's who.

It'll be important to get high-quality photos of the baby when the pair come up into Canadian waters to record the developing pattern. Researchers will also look to get a biopsy to record a DNA sample, as well, Brown said.

The calf will not be given a number designation until it is old enough for the unique pattern to develop and enough photographs taken that scientists have confidence they can identify it when it's on its own. 

Brown said the mom and baby are looking good, from what she's seen of photos posted online.

"It's a cute little calf," she said. "So tiny. It's only about the size of its mom's head. Mom looks great."

It's encouraging, she said, but added that along with measures humans are taking to reduce ship strikes and entanglements, the whales need to do their part and start making more babies to preserve the species for the future.

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