The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the season has made it to Cape Cod Bay, earlier than expected and having “beaten the odds,” according to experts, who track the rare and critically endangered animals.
It’s a glimmer of hope in what is normally a dark story.
“When we see a calf getting into Cape Cod Bay and being safe, it's a sigh of relief, because at least there's one calf that will make it for sure,” said Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the Provincetown-based Center for Coastal Studies Right Whale Ecology Program. “And we assume others from this year's birthing will make it too, and we'll expect to see them here.”
Mayo said the 3-month-old calf and its mother — a well-known visitor to Massachusetts waters, whom scientists have named Millipede — both look healthy, and the calf is unusually big for its age. They were spotted by the center’s aerial surveillance team on Wednesday.
Bridget Mckenna is a right while researcher and aerial observer on the team; she said the calf was quite independent, too.
“It spent more than 40 minutes far from its mother,” Mckenna said, “which is something we do not see often at this age.”
Mckenna said they weren’t expecting the mother-calf pair, since they typically first see them in late March or early April.
Though Cape Cod Bay is a highly protected area — the state has strict controls on fishing activity and boating speeds — Mayo says the whales' annual migration to New England after spending the winter months off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida is a perilous 1,200 mile journey through busy coastal waters. And more perils await them when they leave our waters.
Boat strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have devastated the North Atlantic right whale population. The Center for Coastal Studies says since 2017 there have been 34 recorded whale deaths in a population that Mayo says stands at just 360 left in the world. And scientists say 14 others are known to be currently injured or entangled, though actual numbers are likely to be substantially higher.
“We're losing a lot of whales," Mayo said. "And this is an issue of simple arithmetic. The number of whales being born minus the number of whales that are dying, over I’d say the last decade, is a negative number. And that means that this population is believed by scientists to be headed towards extinction, if there's not a change in the positive — the calving — or the negative — the mortality.
Millipede’s calf was one of 17 documented births this season; three calves already are known to be or assumed to be dead.
Still, Mayo said, the calving rate is up a little bit this year, “and we should all celebrate that — that's very important.”