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Biologists from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida knew immediately what they were seeing: It was a North Atlantic right whale calf.
They couldn’t help but be ecstatic.
“Soon enough, the team knew the mother would surface for a breath of air and the calving season would have the first live mother-calf right whale pair,” said Melanie White, a research biologist who serves as the aquarium’s North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Project Manager.
The calf, found swimming on Dec. 4 with a first-time mom known as Chiminea off the coast of Cumberland Island in Georgia, was the first of two live calves found over the past week, the National Marine Fisheries Service tweeted Monday.
The second, born to 16 year-old Millepede, was spotted Monday while swimming with bottlenose dolphins off Vilano Beach in Florida.
“Uplifting news for this fragile species especially during the first week of December,” White said.
And especially uplifting after a dead North Atlantic right whale calf washed ashore last month in North Carolina.
A preliminary necropsy suggested the calf died during or shortly after birth and no humans were involved in the death, according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“These births represent a bright light in an otherwise dismal situation,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation organization.
Davenport also noted that “while these new births deserve celebration, they amount to little if we don’t prevent the vessel strikes and gear entanglements that have reduced the population by 25% in less than a decade.”
Right whales got their name from being the “right” whale to hunt because they swim slowly, stay close to shore and float when dead. They were hunted nearly to extinction but began a gradual comeback after hunting them was outlawed. In recent years, however, their slow population growth reversed.
The waters off Georgia and Florida are the whales’ only known calving grounds. Pregnant females go there in winter from the feeding grounds off New England and Canada to give birth.
During the 2019-20 calving season, there were 10 calves born, up from seven in 2018-19. But researchers say about 20 births a year are needed to ensure the species’ survival.
There are about 360 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, due to fishing equipment entanglement, whaling, vessel strikes, and ocean noise levels, according to NMFS (also known as NOAA Fisheries).
Conditions are so dire for the endangered sea mammal that more than 55 conservation organizations sent a letter to Congress on Dec. 3 seeking emergency action.
“If Congress continues to underfund right whale recovery, there is a very real prospect of the species going extinct in the next decade or two,” the letter says. “The small funding increases that Congress has provided in past appropriations bills, while appreciated, are wholly insufficient to save the right whale from slipping further towards extinction, let alone putting it on the path to recovery.”