Right whale found dead off Virginia coast recently gave birth to calf, experts say

(TMX) — A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale was found dead off the coast of Virginia on Saturday, and her calf is missing, unlikely to survive without her, officials said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday confirmed the identity of the dead whale, female #1950, which was found floating approximately 50 miles offshore Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The whale has been known to researchers since 1989, and gave birth to her sixth calf during the 2024 calving season.

NOAA Fisheries said the whale was towed to shore for a necropsy, which will be led by scientists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington alongside other organizations, to determine her cause of death. The carcass showed signs of shark scavenging.

According to NOAA Fisheries, female #1950 is the 40th mortality in the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event impacting North Atlantic right whales. the UME was declared in 2017, and includes 40 dead, 34 seriously injured, and 51 sublethally injured or ill whales. The agency said most were killed or injured by entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes in both U.S. and Canadian waters.

Female #1950 was first seen with her newborn calf on Jan. 11, 2024, by Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Georgia aerial survey team. The pair was last spotted on Feb. 16 off the coast of Florida.

The calf is considered a seriously injured dependent calf in the UME due to the death of its mother, NOAA Fisheries said.

The New England Aquarium on Tuesday said aerial search teams have been unable to locate the calf, and it “is not expected to survive without its mother.”

It is the fourth documented death of a North Atlantic right whale so far this year.

“The situation so far in 2024 for right whales highlights the fact that much more needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this species,” Amy Knowlton, senior scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, who helped identify the whale, said in a statement. “It is frustrating that solutions that could address these threats are not being implemented more immediately.”

Female #1950 successfully birthed and reared five calves in prior seasons.

“If she can avoid the double threats of vessel strikes and entanglements, a female right whale can calve throughout her long life, producing ten or more calves. With the loss of Catalog #1950, her female lineage now rests with her three daughters, none of which have calved yet,” said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center.

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