Calf sightings in Cape Cod Bay are big news for endangered right whales

April 15, 2019, 12:23 p.m.
A baby right whale swims with its mother in Cape Cod Bay off Massachusetts.
Photo: Center for Coastal Studies

The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale might be experiencing an iota of an upswing.

With only 411 of them alive today, this whale is one of the rarest species on Earth. But the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said its aerial search team recently spotted two mother-and-calf pairs in Cape Cod Bay. Another mother and calf were observed earlier this year.

The calf sightings are a big deal because since 2015, the population has steadily declined. "The right whales are at a point where more are dying than are being born," wildlife ecologist Clay George told NPR last year. "That's just not sustainable long-term."

There are estimated to be fewer than 100 breeding females, and that makes it difficult for a species to continue to replace its lost population. In addition, some whales have died after collisions with ships or after being entangled in fishing gear.

There were no calves spotted in 2018. In February, the Natural Resources Defense Council said seven calves had been observed off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, where they were born. Right whales give birth in the warm coastal southern waters then travel north to Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine in early spring to feed.

It's illegal to be within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale without a federal research permit.

However, the Center for Coastal Studies points out that right whales often feed very close to shore, "offering whale watchers on land unbeatable views of one of the rarest of the marine mammals."