One calf would make this North Atlantic right whale calving season better than the last one, which set off alarms far and wide with zero documented calves. There are five so far this season, with the latest spotted Feb. 5.
It wasn’t staff with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or the Ship to Shore Alliance who found the fifth whale and her calf — it was a group of volunteers at the Sebastian Inlet State Park in Florida.
“Photographs taken by park ranger, Ed Perry, confirm the mother is Catalog No. 4180,” according to a FWC post on Facebook. “Right whale No. 4180 is at least eight years old and this is her first known calf. the pair were observed resting and nursing at the surface.”
Observers with the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts first spotted No. 4180 in Cape Cod Bay in March 2010, but she was making trips south within a year, even though females don’t typically reach calving age until nine years old or so. FWC staff saw her on three different occasions in January and February 2011. GADNR spotted her in December 2011, and she was back around the area in January 2013, but that was the last sighting of her until the most recent one.
Her appearances up north are tracking current trends though, as it appears she’s moved on from feeding areas around Cape Cod north to, in the last two years or so, the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Right whale No. 2503 — nicknamed Boomerang — was not far from Jekyll Island on Jan. 25 when a FWC aerial survey team found her. She’s calved four times, with the last one — before the most recent — during the 2014-2015 season. That Boomerang is showing a more-traditional period between calving is a generally welcomed sight. Many right whales’ calving intervals have grown from three-to-four years to around 10, which hinders the ability of the species to repopulate.
Boomerang’s been around for a while — researchers discovered her for the first time in January 1995 off Florida. She returned to the calving grounds in December 1995, but for the most part made her home around the Bay of Fundy and Cape Cod Bay. She was spotted again southward in December 2003, December 2005, a trip to the Gulf of Mexico in January 2006, returning to areas off the Atlantic Coast of Florida and Georgia in 2009 and 2014.
Like No. 4180, Boomerang’s moved on from the Bay of Fundy and Cape Cod Bay to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Statistics and research indicate that warming waters in the Bay of Fundy’s driving plankton north, which causes the whales to chase it. The longer distance between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the southern calving grounds is considered a factor in the lengthening calving intervals. Female whales have to load up on stored fat, because the entire trip back north, they’re nursing their calf and not eating.
She’s called Boomerang because of a scar on her fluke.
Calves two and three happened within a week of each other — the second was from right whale No. 3317, and spotted off Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The third was near Amelia Island, Fla., to one of the most prolific right whale mothers on record.
No. 1204 gave birth to nine calves in her lifetime, putting her in the top three whales since documentation began. CCS first saw her in Massachusetts Bay on April 14, 1982. According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, people from the New England Aquarium and GADNR found her off the Georgia coast in December 1990 — she swam here again in the 1994-1995 season, 1998-1999 season, 2002, 2004-2005, 2009 and 2012-2013.
No. 3317, the second whale of the season, is a little younger. While No. 1204 would be an older millennial, No. 3317 is solidly Gen Z, born in 2003 to No. 1817, better known as Silt, who is an ‘80s whale like No. 1204.
Thanks to being a 21st Century cetacean, No. 3317 was tracked while gestating, so, technically, observers spotted her at around negative two weeks old. She appeared in the calving grounds less than a year after birth, and returned again in 2005. There continued to be observations in the area in 2006, 2007, 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2014 and 2015-2016. She’s also moved to the Gulf of St. Lawrence when she’s not around here.
And of course, No. 2791 was the widely-reported first calving whale of the season.
At five, that’s not a lot of births, but it represents at the very least a moderate improvement. The 2016-2017 season was the second-worst on record since the one-calf year of 1999, but the zero-calf season of 2017-2018 subsequently claimed the top spot.