Click the thumbnails for high-resolution images:
Thrashing
Blood in the water
Limp calf begins to surface
Calf rolls off mother's back
Mother and calf swimming

Motherhood in the whale world is more demanding than just delivering a 12 foot, 2000 pound baby

As New England Aquarium researcher Monica Zani flew low over the right whale, she saw big, bubbling pools of blood coming up alongside the thrashing fifty-foot endangered whale. She thought the worst fearing a massive injury from a vessel strike. Rolando Salmon, the pilot of the small spotting plane, quickly started circling the distressed whale so that the crew of four could make closer observations and take more photographs.

At second look, Monica questioned her initial assumption. The whale was rolled up on its side, yet there was no visible wound. The red-tinged water around the whale’s belly and tail flukes was breaking up quickly due to the turbulence of the white water created by the thrashing. Somehow, the whale’s movement seemed more rhythmic and purposeful than just a spasmodic reaction to great pain. Then the whale dropped below the water’s surface. Three and a half minutes had passed since Monica had first spotted the lone whale. Suddenly, the whale resurfaced without any thrashing. An object about one quarter the length of the adult appeared alongside it. There was no longer just one whale but two – a mother and her newly born calf!

The drama associated with invigorating new life was not yet over. The approximately twelve-foot, one ton calf was listless, and its tail flukes appeared to be curled under. The mother again dipped from the surface and when she reappeared the calf was draped limply over her back. The calf then rolled off its mother’s back and began to swim. Over the next fifteen minutes, the calf stayed within a half body’s length of its mother making frequent body contact and rolling. A few times, the pair surfaced with the calf positioned near its mother’s flippers, which is where nursing would take place. The water was too murky to observe any actual suckling, but the crew was encouraged. After twenty minutes, the plane needed to move on.

Despite thousands of hours of flights to monitor right whales in their calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and northern Florida, no human had ever seen the birth of a North Atlantic right whale, the most endangered large whale in the Atlantic. In a population of less than 400, every new right whale calf is a cause for celebration in the effort to battle their extinction. Beyond the trauma of giving birth, motherhood in the world of right whales is highly demanding and requires a maternal dedication that is awe-inspiring.

Here are a few of the facts:

1. Late each autumn, pregnant females swim over 1000 miles from New England waters to their calving grounds near the Florida/Georgia border. The maternal strategy to have newborn calves with little blubber enter the world in the much warmer waters to the south.
2. Right whale mothers essentially fast for four months while they are at the calving grounds and on the migration each way. Once out of New England waters, their preferred food of animal plankton is too low in density to make feeding worthwhile.
3. Calves are still hungry and must nurse on their near cottage cheese-like milk of their mothers to gain the hundreds of pounds that they gain weekly. Scientists postulate that over the course of the late pregnancy and a year of nursing, right whale mothers can lose 10 - 30% of their average 50 ton weight or anywhere from
10,000 to 30,000 pounds.

Later photo analysis by New England Aquarium researcher Heather Pettis revealed that the mother was called “Cat’s Paw”, a namesake for a small white scar that the whale has on its shoulder.

The photos were taken in the winter of 2005 and have just been published in the scientific journal Aquatic Mammals. The delay in the release to the mass media is an unfortunate necessity for scientists who must first publish in academic venues.