First right whale calves of the season spotted

Earlier calving season brings potential for the endangered species.

The first right whale calf of the 2022–23 calving season was spotted off the coast of St. Catherine’s Sound in Georgia. — Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research

Residents and visitors of the Cape and Islands may see new fins when the North Atlantic right whales return to New England from their wintertime southern calving waters. Florida-based Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute announced in a press release that its researchers “spotted the first North Atlantic right whale mom and calf pair of the 2022–23 season” off the coast of St. Catherine’s Sound in Georgia on Wednesday, Dec. 7. Charles (“Stormy”) Mayo, director of the Center for Coastal Studies right whale ecology program in Provincetown, told The Times on Monday a second calf was spotted recently near a similar area.

“We now know that there have been two born,” Mayo said. “I think it’s a positive sign. My impression is that the birthing is happening a little earlier than usual.”

The release states this is the seventh documented calf of the Georgia mother whale, nicknamed “Medusa,” at an estimated age of 42 years old. 

“Recovery had been slow and steady until 2010, when we started to see a decline. Most recent population models show that the numbers are declining again for various reasons, including a slow reproduction rate, threats from entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with large vessels, and possibly other factors not yet identified,” James Powell, president and executive director of Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, said in the release. 

The most recent count announced in November by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium estimated there are 340 right whales in the world, which is subject to change after the calving season. There are fewer than 100 breeding females left in the species, contributing to the downward population trend. According to the release, “Calving grounds off the coasts of northeast Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina have been designated critical habitat areas to help protect the species.” 

“We are encouraged to see the newly born North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Georgia right now. Each birth offers a chance for this critically endangered species to recover, but unfortunately, the Fisheries Service has failed to implement adequate protections for right whales, as required by law. As they head back north, they face a myriad of threats, including thousands of speeding boats and a maze of fishing lines — all of which can cause serious injury and death. Our government needs to step up and put effective safeguards in place to give these whales a fighting chance at survival,” Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan said in a statement. 

The early calving season suggests there could be a “substantial number of animals” born this year, which Mayo found “very exciting.” According to Mayo, the calving rate had been lower than the mortality rate of right whales. 

“More calves will make a significant difference,” Mayo said. 

Mother and some juveniles are usually the ones that migrate south for calving waters, while most of the whales remain north, such as around the Gulf of Maine or in open oceans to feed, according to Mayo. His team spotted right whales off Cape Cod Bay on Monday, an area that has a “really heavy concentration” of right whales. Mayo said based on the center’s data, around 81 percent of the right whale population stay in the area from around December to May. 

Efforts to protect the whales are ongoing, and Mayo said, “There’s plenty of effort to figure out what to do about it.” In Massachusetts, there is “strict control” on fishing activities and vessel speeds when whales are around. In waters south of Nantucket, a “dynamic management” system is in place for authorities to call for reduced vessel speeds when a whale is spotted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed expanding vessel speed restrictions in August, which the Steamship Authority expressed dissatisfaction toward during its board meeting in September. 

“Cape Cod Bay is a relatively easy area to implement those management practices,” Mayo said, although the issue arises from other parts of the around 1,200 to 1,400 miles of the East Coast that are more difficult to manage. 

The reduction of ropes for fishing gear is another effort being run to protect right whales. Mayo said an alternative that has been suggested is replacing traps with ropes for ones that can come to the surface on their own, or remotely. 

Despite these endeavors, Mayo said, “So far, they seem to not produce as much of a positive in reducing mortality.” According to Mayo, some environmental groups believe stronger measures are needed to protect right whales. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood advisory list, “red listed” American lobster fisheries, among others to recommend consumers and businesses avoid purchasing seafood with risks to right whales. 

Mayo said the hope is for environmental groups, research organizations, state governments, and federal agencies to cooperate in slowing down the population dip of right whales. 


  1. The congressional delegation from Maine has inserted a provision in the omnibus bill that undos what the federal judge did on rope.ess traps. Chuck Schumer went along with it. Email him to tell him what a bad idea it is. He sacrificed the whales for a republican vote

    • The majority of Maine lobstermen, probably 95%, fish in less than 100 ft of water. Federal regulations for ropeless or sinking line traps are nothing but an unneeded cost for men and women trying to make a living in a business with very high overhead.

Comments are closed.