If Juno’s calf is given a nickname, here’s one to consider: Survivor.
The North Atlantic right whale calf hit by a vessel and severely injured in mid- to late December is still with us and appears to be healing. But hope for its future is tempered by concern.
In the most recent sighting, a survey flight by Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute spotted the calf and its mom Juno 20 nautical miles off Sapelo Island on Feb. 1. While the plane circled the pair, a Georgia DNR boat crew scrambled in rising waves and fading light to reach the whales and take drone video and photos to assess the calf’s health.
DNR senior wildlife biologist Jessica Thompson said that scientists who monitor North Atlantic right whales, one of rarest large whale species on Earth, were “surprised but pleased to see the calf is still alive despite the extensive wounds on its head.”
Calves that suffered such extreme injuries in other incidents did not survive. While this one might be slightly thinner than expected at about 10 weeks old, it is nursing and “behaving as a normal calf would,” Thompson said.
On the sobering side, experts who have reviewed video and images of the deep propeller cuts slicing across the calf’s head note that some of the lacerations are opening and closing with the blowholes. This movement could slow healing, increase the risk of infection and impair how the blowholes work. There’s also worry the extensive scar tissue will mar development of the entire head.
Thompson said the young whale faces two milestones. First is whether it will be able to migrate to right whale feeding grounds off the coast of New England and Canada. Second, will the wounds affect the growth of its head and its ability to forage, especially when the calf is weaned at about a year old and must open its baleen plate-lined mouth to filter for tiny crustaceans called copepods.
For now, there’s hope. And watchfulness.
With fewer than about 360 North Atlantic right whales left, every calf is critical. Of the 17 spotted this winter off Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas – the species’ only known calving grounds – two are presumed dead, having not been with their moms on follow-up sightings. Given the rate of human-caused right whale deaths and injuries, NOAA estimates that approximately 50 or more calves are needed each year to allow the population to recover.
During winter, coastal boaters from North Carolina to northern Florida are urged to keep watch, use the Whale Alert app and slow down in right whale waters to better avoid collisions that endanger them, their boats and the whales.
Right whales in the Southeast will start migrating north this month. Despite their size, the whales can be hard to see because of their dark color and lack of a dorsal fin. Mothers and calves also spend most of their time at or near the surface, putting them at more risk of being hit
All right whale sightings should be reported at 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or via the U.S. Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16. Provide the vessel name or contact information, plus the time, location and sighting details. Also, observe right whales only from a distance. Stay at least 500 yards away and never pursue or follow one.
ABOUT NAMING WHALES
All whales included in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog have a number. (Juno is 1612.) But some are also given names to help identify them. According to the New England Aquarium, the names are submitted by research organizations, then ranked and voted on. Most names are connected to a whale’s features or other facts. Take, for example, Jagger (no. 5046), a male with large callosity markings that some say resemble the lips of rocker Mick Jagger.