Friday, April 09, 2010

{Press} Right whale moms & calves make journey north to Cape waters

Sally Rose | Provincetown Banner | April 09, 2010


With spring in the air, right whale moms are making their way north to New England from warmer southern waters with calves in tow.

That means the much anticipated — at least in these parts — right whale calf count is in.

Through aerial survey flights, New England Aquarium scientists and their colleagues, including those at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, have determined that 19 right whale calves were born this year. However, only 18 appear to have survived to depart their winter nursery waters along the north Florida and Georgia coasts; one calf disappeared for unknown reasons.

Nineteen calves is roughly the average observed birth rate for the North Atlantic right whale population over the past decade, but it is many fewer than the record 39 that were born last spring.

Right whale mothers give birth only once every two to three years. The calves measure about 12 feet long and 2,000 pounds at birth.

And, with most of the mom-calf pairs having begun their migration north along the East Coast, the northern contingent of researchers are beginning their aerial survey flights.

Laura Ganley, flight coordinator for Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’ aerial survey team, said she and her team saw three mom and calf pairs over the weekend — a good ratio considering that last season, with the record 39 births, they only saw a total of four mom-and-calf pairs during the whales’ feeding time in Cape Cod Bay.

Tanya Gabettie Grady, in charge of PCCS’s communications, noted that Coastal Studies researchers and their colleagues are still analyzing the sightings’ data on this year’s mom and calf pairs.

The bay isn’t the only right whale feeding ground, though, and some of the whales may be keeping farther offshore.

But there were plenty to keep the observation teams busy.

“It was the first crazy busy weekend,” said Ganley. The PCCS team saw a total of about 44 right whales Friday and 40 on Monday. “That keeps us pretty busy, we were landing as the sun was setting.”

Right whales usually spend most of April feeding around Cape Cod Bay and then head north at the end of the month and beginning of April.

Right whale mothers and calves take several weeks to make the hazardous journey up the East Coast past many busy shipping ports. Historically, it is known to be one of the more dangerous times for right whales as these slow, surface swimming whales with their black color are vulnerable to vessel strikes.

There are fewer than 450 of these mammals left on the planet — they are the most endangered large whale in the Atlantic and among the most endangered whales in the world.

New England Aquarium scientists, based out of Boston, maintain the official catalog for each individual whale, identified by their distinctive raised white skin patterns which are unique to each individual."

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