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Season's First Right Whale Calves Arrive in Cape Cod Bay

Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #19315-1
Right whale Harmonia and her calf traveling through Cape Cod Bay.

Three right whale calves have been spotted with their mothers in Cape Cod Bay, a rare piece of good news for the critically endangered species.  

The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown reported the calves are the first to arrive in Cape waters this season. The first mother-calf pair was seen on Sunday, April 12, off Race Point by local naturalist and data contributor Peter Flood. The other two were spotted two days later in an aerial survey off Manomet and Mayflower beaches in Dennis, respectively.

The mothers -- known to scientists as Palmetto, Harmonica, and Calvin -- have made the trek from calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to Cape Cod Bay to feed on plankton through the  winter and early spring. 

Stormy Mayo, director of the CCS’s Right Whale Ecology Program, said he was especially excited to see Calvin. Mayo’s team freed the 28-year-old female from potentially lethal entanglement several years ago.

“Not only did they save her, but they saved all of her reproductive potential,” he said.  “And so we see that she has given birth to a calf and that calf represents the future of right whales.” 

This is the first time researchers have seen Harmonica and Palmetto with calves in Cape Cod Bay. 

“At this point in time we don’t know what specifically drew them here this year,” Mayo wrote in a separate press release, “although good feeding conditions [are] likely part of the story, and the results of our right whale habitat monitoring work may offer up some clues.”

Still, only 10 right whale calves have been sighted this year, and one was struck by a boat at just a few days old. It suffered likely-lethal wounds to its head and jaw, and neither the injured calf nor its mother has been seen since late January. Even if the injured calf survived, Mayo said, 10 calves a year for a total population of about 400 isn’t enough. 

“[These whales] are not reproducing as they should be,” Mayo said. “They probably should have had 25 to perhaps 35 calves this year. ... They can give birth a maximum of once every three years and a bunch of them just are not doing that.” 

The leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales are collisions with ships and entanglement in rope or fishing gear. 

A potential bright spot could be found in a decrease of air and boat traffic, caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

“Whenever we have a shutdown of our society, since we share the ocean with the whales, and some of that sharing is not as friendly as we’d like it to be, indeed, there probably is a benefit to whales,” Mayo said.  

It’s illegal for boaters, kayakers, and drone operators to come within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale without a Federal Research Permit. 

To protect the whales, a fishing closure in Cape Cod Bay will be enforced until at least May 1, when the giant mammals are expected to leave the bay and head north. 

Even as the number of known calves this year falls short, and the possibility of extinction looms large, Mayo said he takes solace in knowing that at least some have made it to Cape Cod.  

“We’ve already got three of the 10 precious little animals that, we hope, will keep this population alive.” 

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