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‘Robust’ Right Whale Calf Arrives Early in Cape Cod Bay

The 3-month-old is with its 16-year-old mother, Millipede, a common visitor to these waters. She was named for the scars on her right flank left by propeller marks when she was hit by a boat in her first year of life.
Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA Permit #19315
The 3-month-old calf arrived with 16-year-old mother, Millipede, seen here. She was named for the scars on her right flank left by propeller marks when she was hit by a boat in her first year of life.

The first North Atlantic right whale calf to arrive in Cape Cod Bay this season has been spotted — a month earlier than expected.

An aerial survey team from Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies spotted the 3-month-old with its mother, Millipede, a well-known visitor to local waters.

“[Millipede’s] 2021 calf appeared to be quite healthy and independent -- it spent more than 40 minutes far from its mother, which is something we do not see often at this age,” said CCS right whale researcher and aerial observer Brigid McKenna.

Researchers surveying Cape Cod Bay typically expect to see the first mother-calf pairs of the season in March/early April, but this year, several calves were born in the very earliest part of the calving season off the coasts of Florida and Georgia.

“So maybe everything’s happening early,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the CCS Right Whale Ecology Program. “We can say for sure that the calf — to make that journey— is in excellent condition, as the mother is.”

In fact, the calf was one the largest the aerial team had ever seen, which initially — combined with its unusual independence — made researchers wonder if it was a calf at all. But once it reunited with 16-year-old Millipede, the pair stayed close.

Millipede is named for scars on her right flank, left by propeller marks when she was hit by a boat in her first year of life. Her first calf, born in 2013, was never seen again after leaving waters in the southeastern United States, and it’s unlikely that it survived the journey north.

That’s part of what makes the arrival of this calf so special to researchers.

“We’ve lost a number of right whales, as we always seem to, and we know that trip all the way from the birthing grounds … to Cape Cod — that’s a perilous trip,” Mayo said. “So I suppose the very good side of the story is that ... the little calf made that very long trip up the East Coast and did so safely.”

The mother-calf pair are considered highly protected in Cape Cod Bay, where fixed gear fishing closures will last into May. Those closures are designed to protect the high aggregation of right whales that spend late winter to early spring feeding in local waters. In fact, Millipede and her calf were among 57 North Atlantic right whales seen on a single day this week, bringing the total number of individuals spotted locally this season to over 100.

Still, Mayo lamented, they won’t be safe for long, as they continue north into riskier waters.

Since 2017, there have been 34 recorded right whale deaths, most as a result of entanglement or ship strike; 14 more are known to be entangled or injured, as the species population has fallen to approximately 366.

Of the 18 documented North Atlantic right whale calves born this season, three are already known or assumed to have died, one of which was struck and killed by a boat in Florida; researchers say its mother was gravely injured in the same incident.

But for now, Mayo is enjoying the good news, for a change.

“When we see a calf getting into Cape Cod Bay and being safe,” he said, “it’s a sigh of relief because there’s at least one calf will make it for sure.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.