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© WDC, Amanda (left) assisting with the education program "Marine Mammal Anatomy" with Delilah, our inflatable right whale

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Right whale calf missing

Newborn right whales

Newborn right whales are completely dependent on their mother during their first few months of life. Glued to their mother's side, the pair only whispers to each other, so they can keep their locations secret to avoid any unwanted attention. These newborns nurse, snuggle, and learn the pathway from where they were born to where they will eventually find food on their own next year.

North Atlantic right whale #1950 and new calf © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Aerial survey funded by NOAA Fisheries and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
North Atlantic right whale #1950 and new calf © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Aerial survey funded by NOAA Fisheries and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Journey to the north

Their journey from their birthplace to the bounty of food in colder waters off New England and Atlantic Canada can take weeks and is sadly filled with a labyrinth of hazards. To keep them safe, the mothers need to avoid ropes in the water, in which she may become accidentally entangled, and passing vessels, that do not realize she and her calf are swimming at the surface.

Right whale mothers know their little one is not able to dive as long as she can, so their travels must be near the surface where her energetic calf can rest and breathe more easily. This method of travel was not meant for an industrialized ocean congested with vessel traffic, often moving at high speeds in her pathway.

Right whale calf missing

During the 2024 calving season, 19 newborns had hopes of making their way north. But before they left the calving area, three were already dead or missing, at least one whose tiny head was no match for the propeller of a passing vessel. This left 16 calves who still had hopes of making their way north, until a survey plane found a dead whale on Easter Sunday. The whale was later identified as #1950, a 35-year-old mom who had just given birth to her sixth calf, but her new calf was nowhere in sight.

North Atlantic right whale #1950 © Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, taken under NOAA permit 24359.
North Atlantic right whale #1950 © Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, taken under NOAA permit 24359.
North Atlantic right whale #1950 © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit 24359. Aerial survey funded by United States Army Corps of Engineers.
North Atlantic right whale #1950 © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit 24359. Aerial survey funded by United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Tragic reality

The most merciful scenario is that the calf was also struck and his or her suffering ended quickly, rather than days or weeks of suffering as they seek out their missing mother and starve. This is the tragic reality of hoping a healthy right whale calf is dead.

Sliver of hope

While highly, highly unlikely, right whale researchers grasp at a sliver of hope that another plausible scenario exists Where the baby will be okay, against all odds. There are three right whale mothers out there who lost their calves this season, each of whom might still be producing milk. Maybe, somehow, in the wide ocean, this calf will find their way to one of these mothers and a miracle will happen. We can all dare to dream for this species.

The Hunger Games

There are now 15 calves whose mothers risk everything to bring them north. A right whale version of the Hunger Games as we watch to see who survives. Like the movie, this horrific game of survival is driven by politics. A new rule to slow vessels in right whale habitats - significantly reducing the risk of collision or increasing their chance of survival should a strike occur - has languished in a political game of chess for years. In 2012 and 2020, WDC and its partners petitioned the government, asking for the rule to be improved to reduce strikes. Not unlike the Hollywood blockbuster, there are government employees working to do the right thing and a proposed rule to improve the speed rule was released in 2022.

North Atlantic right whale version of The Hunger Games © WDC
North Atlantic right whale version of The Hunger Games © WDC

Political pressure

However, political pressure from those who do not want to see the rule move forward, has left it crawling through a stalled process that delays its release. Because of these delays, WDC and our partners petitioned for emergency regulations to protect mothers and calves in 2022 and 2023, both requests denied by the federal government. We first went to court to challenge this lack of protection from vessel strikes in January 2021 and we are back in court with our partners now. WDC’s pledge is to protect this species and keep these mothers and calves safe. Like the heroine in the Hunger Games, we know we are not alone in this fight, and we are constantly buoyed by your support to ensure a future for this species, and we are grateful.

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