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Welcome, baby! First North Atlantic right whale calf of the season spotted off South Carolina

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Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute & USACE taken under NOAA permit #20556-01
Catalog #3593 and calf were sighted approximately 31 nautical miles east of Lea-Hutaff Island, NC on March 11, 2021. Catalog #3593 is at least 16 years old and this is her first documented calf.

Early sightings of the first North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2022 season have offered some hope for the critically endangered species.

A public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the calf was seen with its mother just off the coast of South Carolina on Wednesday. The pair had yet to be identified, but already stirred up excitement among conservationists.

“December is usually the real, significant beginning of the calving season and it reaches its peak in late January into February, then declines. So you can see this is pretty early,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale ecology program at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies.

It’s so early, he said, that it could be an indication that a larger number of the critically endangered whales will be born this year.

“Births are simply down and have been for almost a decade. And so the possibility that this early birth is an indication that we will see a very active year is particularly exciting,” he said.

During the calving season last winter, researchers identified 19 calves. Two died shortly after birth. Only 22 births were observed during the previous four calving seasons combined.

North Atlantic right whale calves graph.png
NOAA Fisheries
The number of North Atlantic right whale births each “calving year.”

“[This year], the hope would be that we might see 30 animals, 30 calves born,” Mayo said. “It's for all of us just to stay tuned and figure out if that's going to turn out to be true. This is a bit of an encouragement, though.”

Today, scientists estimate that just 336 North Atlantic right whales remain, as climate change, entanglements in rope and fishing gear, and collisions with boats all contribute to the population’s decline.

“In order to pull these animals out of their collapse into extinction,” Mayo said, “we’ve got to see more more whales born, to keep ahead of the unfortunate mortality rate.”

If weather permits, NOAA researchers on the Southeast aerial teams are expected to search for the pair again this week. Officials are urging boaters to slow down and give right whales space, especially where new moms are bonding with their calves.

Right whale sightings can be reported to 1-877-WHALE-HELP or the Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16.

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