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BOSTON, MASS. (Nov. 16, 2023) – North Atlantic right whales are on the move this season, with recent sightings of three whales, including a mother and calf, in the Gulf of Maine.
The aerial survey team from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium has observed a high level of whale activity off the coast of Maine this fall. Aquarium aerial observers were flying over Wilkinson Basin last week when they sighted right whale “Pediddle” (Catalog #1012) and her 10-month-old calf skim feeding. The calf, first spotted in the southeastern U.S. calving grounds in January, is the ninth documented calf of Pediddle—a female at least 45 years old. A few hours later, the team sighted a third right whale, “Mohawk” (Catalog #1320), about 35 miles southeast of Portland, ME. The 49-year-old male was feeding among a group of basking sharks. Other research groups have detected the wide-ranging presence of right whales in Gulf of Maine waters over the past month, including a second mother-calf pair and multiple acoustic detections.
“It was incredible to watch these right whales feeding at the surface, especially Pediddle’s calf learning to feed alongside its mother. Right whale mothers and their calves are vital to the recovery of this critically endangered species, and it is important to ensure they are protected from threats throughout their range,” said Katherine McKenna, an assistant scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center, who captured the aerial survey photos.
Warming waters in the northern Atlantic Ocean have led to shifts in right whale habitat use, making them vulnerable to human-caused threats in certain areas. North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered large whale species in the world, with scientists estimating around 350 individuals remaining in the population and just 70 reproductive females. Sightings of the critically endangered species have ranged from Newfoundland to New Jersey over the past month, highlighting the fact that right whales can be broadly distributed at any given point in time.
In addition to right whales, Aquarium scientists have documented a total of 88 humpback and 121 endangered fin whale sightings during their seven flights this fall over the Gulf of Maine, including one day with 38 fin whales observed. Just this week, the Aquarium team also sighted an endangered blue whale about 25 miles south of Boothbay, ME. Several groups have been conducting aerial surveys of Maine offshore waters this year, collecting data on marine mammal activity.
“The amount of wildlife we’ve seen feeding has really been quite astounding. From fin whales lunge feeding on krill, to right whales and basking sharks skim feeding side by side, to groups of humpbacks, pods of dolphins, and a blue whale—all brought here by a large amount of prey in the Gulf of Maine,” said Orla O’Brien, an associate scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center who leads the aerial survey team.
The increase in whale activity is drawing attention to the continued need to protect right whales from their two greatest threats, entanglements and vessel strikes. Safeguarding mothers and calves in particular from human-induced threats is critical. North Atlantic right whales, fin whales, and blue whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year. With the annual right whale calving season underway, scientists are hopeful for the presence of newborn calves off Florida and Georgia throughout the winter.
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