The first calf sighting of the season. (Photo credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #20556.)

By Hannah E. Jones

This time of year, a group of expecting North Atlantic right whale mothers are swimming to or settling in the warm waters along the Southeastern Coast — near Georgia, South Carolina and Florida — to birth and nurse their young. Now, researchers are waiting with bated breath to see the outcomes of the 2022-23 calving season for the critically endangered species.

On Dec. 7, there was a ray of hope for the at-risk species — a calf. The first baby of the season was spotted off the coast of St. Catherines Sound, Ga. The mom, nicknamed “Medusa,” was first documented in 1981, making her at least 41 years old. The newest addition to her family is her seventh known offspring. 

The mom-and-calf pair was identified by researchers with Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute who collected video and a skin sample from the calf. The next day, a second calf was spotted with mother “Archipelago” about four nautical miles off Little St. Simons Island, Ga.


— Georgia DNR Wildlife (@GeorgiaWild) December 8, 2022

The sightings come days after conservation nonprofit Oceana filed a petition with the federal government calling for emergency rulemaking to protect the species, which is threatened by ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements. The federal government has the authority to act and if passed, ​​the changes would expand the boundaries of the current seasonal speed restriction areas — which require boats to slow down in certain areas — and the restrictions would apply to more boats.

These adaptations are part of a proposal that NOAA released this summer, but final changes aren’t expected until early 2023. Experts say the whales cannot wait until then, desperately needing protection for the current calving season that spans until mid-May.

“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,” Gib Brogan, manager of Oceana’s nationwide right whale campaign, wrote in an email. “Our government needs to step up and put effective safeguards in place to give these whales a fighting chance at survival.”

Today, an estimated 340 North Atlantic right whales are alive, with only 80 females who can reproduce. In addition to environmental threats, the species is also reproducing less frequently. Rather than having a calf every three or four years, increasingly more females have eight or nine-year gaps between rearing their young, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Before 2010, researchers tracked around 24 calves each year but since then, only about 12 have been spotted annually. 

If the emergency rulemaking is passed, the regulations could go into effect tomorrow, according to Brogan. That’s the ideal outcome, giving the whales in peril a greater chance for a healthy life. If the proposals aren’t approved, or lawmakers take too long to respond, the population will continue to shrink.

“Worst case scenario is that we’ll have more whales struck by boats,” Brogan told SaportaReport in a recent interview. “Every time we have a right whale killed by human causes, it sets back the recovery of the species. That’s more than one year’s allowable death. The whale population will continue to decline unless we put effective safeguards in place.” 

To ensure these mothers and calves can safely nurse in our Southern waters and make their migratory trek back North next spring, these protections must go into effect immediately. To learn more about Oceana’s recent emergency rulemaking petition and the status of the whales, click here.

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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