North Atlantic right whale that recently gave birth found dead off coast of Virginia

Fourth documented death in 2024; Calf not likely to survive without its mother

Right whale Catalog #1950 and calf sighted January 11, 2024 approximately 10.4nm off St. Simons Sound, GA
Right whale Catalog #1950 and calf sighted January 11, 2024 off St. Simons Sound, GA. CREDIT: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919

BOSTON, MASS. (April 2, 2024) – A North Atlantic right whale that recently gave birth to her sixth known calf has been found dead off the coast of Virginia, leaving the fate of her newborn calf in jeopardy.

The New England Aquarium and Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute identified the whale as Catalog #1950, a female at least 35 years old. Her carcass was found 50 miles off the coast of Virginia on Saturday. The whale was last seen healthy and with her calf on February 16 off Amelia Island, Florida. The calf, which aerial survey teams have been unable to locate, is not expected to survive without its mother.

This marks the fourth documented North Atlantic right whale death in U.S. waters this year. In addition to these known deaths, three newborn calves have also disappeared.

“The situation so far in 2024 for right whales highlights the fact that much more needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this species,” said Amy Knowlton, senior scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, who helped identify the whale. “It is frustrating that solutions that could address these threats are not being implemented more immediately.”

A vessel towed the whale’s carcass ashore, where it will undergo a necropsy exam led by scientists from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in collaboration with several organizations. They will conduct a thorough internal and external exam and collect tissue samples to learn more about the whale’s death.

Catalog #1950 was first seen with her newborn calf on January 11, 2024, by Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Georgia aerial survey team. (More on the New England Aquarium’s calving season blog.) She suffered three entanglements during her life yet managed to breed and successfully raise five prior calves, which have all been seen in recent years.

“If she can avoid the double threats of vessel strikes and entanglements, a female right whale can calve throughout her long life, producing ten or more calves. With the loss of Catalog #1950, her female lineage now rests with her three daughters, none of which have calved yet,” said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center.

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two leading causes of serious injury and mortality to North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species with an estimated population of less than 360. This would be the fourth known death in U.S. waters this year. On January 28, a three-year-old female right whale entangled in fishing gear washed ashore dead on Martha’s Vineyard. Just a few weeks later, NOAA announced that a one-year-old female yearling found off Savannah, Georgia died of blunt force trauma, as evidenced by skull fractures consistent with a vessel strike. Then in early March, the eighth calf of 38-year-old right whale mother “Juno” (Catalog #1612) washed up dead on the Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, after being seen with severe propeller wounds to its head, mouth, and lip earlier in the year.

To reduce the risk of vessel strikes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed modifications to the existing vessel speed rule. The proposed changes include both an expansion in time and space of seasonal speed zones; extending restrictions to include most vessels measuring 35 feet to 65 feet in length; and implementation of mandatory, instead of voluntary, speed restrictions in dynamic speed zones, which are established when​ and where​ right whales are observed and are likely to remain. The proposed rule was published more than 18 months ago, and the final rule is now under interagency regulatory review. The delay has put this vulnerable species at continued risk from strikes.


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