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Rare video shows two endangered whales hugging off Cape Cod shore

Scientists are wondering whether the “belly to belly” hug was a sign of affection or a mating attempt.

Video shows two endangered whales hugging off Cape Cod shore
Two North Atlantic right whales were caught hugging in the Cape Cod Bay by scientists in February, one of the first sightings of its kind. (Video courtesy of Brian Skerry/National Geographic)

Was it love at sea? Two North Atlantic right whales were caught hugging in the Cape Cod Bay by scientists, one of the first sightings of the unusual encounter among two members of the critically endangered species.

Researchers Michael Moore from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Amy Knowlton from the New England Aquarium witnessed the hug while on an expedition in the bay on February 28, and they released a video last week of the sighting.

The drone footage, captured by National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, is an incredibly rare snapshot of a “remarkable biological event,” according to Suzanne Pelisson, a spokeswoman for the Woods Hole institution.

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“Moore said he’s been doing research for over 40 years and has never seen them do something like that before,” she added.

Video shows two endangered whales hugging off Cape Cod shore
Two North Atlantic right whales were caught hugging in the Cape Cod Bay by scientists in February, one of the first sightings of its kind. Brian Skerry / Nation (Video courtesy of Brian Skerry/National Geographic)

The embrace is an example of a surface active group, or a close interaction between two or more right whales near the water’s surface. Active groups can include playful physical or vocal behavior as well as attempts at affection and mating.

The scientific name for this particular moment of intimacy is known as “belly to belly,” according to a statement from the institution, and is a hugging style where the whales overlap flippers to get as close together as possible. Because these events are captured so rarely, scientists can only guess what the whales’ intentions were.

Whether for play or for passion, the sighting of two North Atlantic right whales together is a positive sign for marine biologists, who have long called for the protection of this critically endangered species. According to the Woods Hole institution, there are fewer than 400 of these whales left on Earth, and fewer than 100 breeding females.

Right whale numbers in recent months have indicated a 25 percent population decline over the past decade. The death of a whale known as “Cottontail” two months ago marks the 34th right whale known to have died since 2017, and scientists predict that extinction is inevitable if the species continues to sustain more than one unnatural death a year.

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Recent sightings of right whales have revolved around their injury and death by ship collision or fishing gear entanglement, so the video represents a welcome change for scientists and ocean-lovers alike — and the possibility of a mating attempt could offer a glimmer of hope for the rapidly disappearing species.

“By spending gentle, quiet time together that day, the right whales gave researchers a unique view of their lives,” Pelisson said.

Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ivscott99.


Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com.