Scientists at the New England Aquarium spotted a North Atlantic right whale mother and her calf in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard Sunday, the first time this season right whales have been spotted in the area, officials said.
The mother and calf were part of a small group of right whales seen 20 miles south of the Vineyard, a statement from the aquarium said Wednesday. Scientists Orla O’Brien and Katherine McKenna were conducting an aerial survey when they spotted the whales, and upon further inspection noted the mother and her calf.
“As the pair surfaced, the calf remained in very close contact with mom as it circled around her,” said McKenna, a research assistant in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “It was an incredible experience to document a mother and calf pair given how crucial they both are to the recovery of this critically endangered species.”
Just 356 North Atlantic right whales are believed to be alive, earning the species an endangered designation since 1970, according to the statement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The mother whale was identified as Catalog Number 2420, and researchers determined the calf is her fifth, the statement said. The pair were first seen together on Jan. 11 near Ponte Verda Beach, Florida. Number 2420 is believed to be more than 37 years old and has no scars from entanglement, a rarity for the species. Only 14 percent of North Atlantic right whales are unscarred, according to the aquarium.
Sunday marked just the second time Number 2420 had been seen with her calf in northern waters after numerous sightings in southern calving ground waters, the statement said.
“With only four sightings north of the calving ground in 27 years, we know little about where this female right whale feeds,” senior scientist Philip Hamilton said. “This recent sighting adds an exciting piece to that puzzle.”
The last time a right whale mother-calf pair was seen in the survey area was March 2019, the aquarium said. But use of the area by right whales has increased in recent years.
“The right whale population has experienced substantial shifts in distribution in the past decade,” O’Brien, an assistant scientist, said. “The increased use of this habitat by right whales is just part of the bigger story, and these sightings help put that together.”
The federal government is poised to issue new regulations to better protect North Atlantic right whales, after a federal judge ruled the US government was in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect them better.
O’Brien said the calf being able to follow its mother north is a sign it will be able to make it to adulthood, which many right whale calves do not.
”Seeing a calf make it to this age ... and seeing it come up the coast with its mother is a great sign for the animal to grow up and be a successful adult,” she said in a telephone interview. “They learn a lot from their mother so when they get brought up the coastline they’re getting shown where are good places to feed. We saw it in our survey area, and I’m sure other survey teams will see it further up the coast in other feeding grounds as well, and that’s a great sign.”
O’Brien said researchers have seen a “stable aggregation” of whales in the area in the past week or so, with the possibility of more whales arriving.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see whether or not we get more whales, as the spring goes on, or if this is kind of what we’re working with right now,” she said.