Biologists Celebrate the Births of Two Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale Calves

With a population of around 366 whales, ‘every individual counts’ in coming back from the brink of extinction

An aerial photo of a North Atlantic right whale mother and her calf swim in the green-blue sea. Their slick gray bodies are visible at the surface of the water as white foam from the ocean pools above them.
Whales are especially vulnerable during the calving season since the mother-calf pairs float at the surface, raising their chances of encountering boats. Wildlife Trust, NOAA Permit #594-1759 via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Earlier this year, North Atlantic right whales were officially listed as critically endangered, and recent estimates put their population at a staggering 366 individuals. But it looks like these gentle giants will be ending the year on a high note as two newborns were recently spotted off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, reports Elinor Aspegren for USA Today.

One of the calves was born to a whale named Chiminea, a first time mother who is thought to be around 13 years old. Chiminea and her baby were seen off the coast of Cumberland Island, Georgia. The other baby belongs to a 16-year-old whale known as Millipede, and the pair were spotted near Florida's Vilano Beach, reports Alaa Elassar for CNN.

"With a population at such low levels, every individual counts, and it is great to see these two new calves at essentially the beginning of the calving season," Jamison Smith, the executive director of the Blue World Research Institute, tells CNN. "It gives us hope that there will be more over the next few months."

The North Atlantic right whales in the western Atlantic Ocean spend the warmer months feasting on tiny crustaceans called copepods, zooplankton and other little critters in the waters near New England and Canada. When the weather starts to cool, the whales migrate down to Georgia and Florida for the winter. There, they'll give birth to their calves before navigating north again in the spring, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit conservation organization. With calving season starting in mid-November and running until mid-April, biologists at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida were ecstatic to see the first two mother-calf pairs of the year, reports USA Today.

Melanie White, a biologist at the aquarium, tells USA Today that this is "uplifting news for this fragile species." North Atlantic right whales almost disappeared entirely after three centuries of whaling wiped out most of the population because of the demand for their blubber, which left only 60 reproductive individuals by the early 1900s, Tom Cheney reported for Smithsonian in 2018. After protections were put in place, the population climbed up to more than 500 individuals by the turn of the 21st century but never came close to reaching their historic numbers.

Despite the small uptick, the population size has taken another dive in recent years as a result of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, the Atlantic's Ed Yong reported last year. This species is especially vulnerable because the whales feed with their mouths open, vacuuming in tiny sea critters near the surface of the water, Smithsonian reports. As such, they're prone to encountering ships and fishing gear, which inflict devastating injuries or a gruesome death.

While biologists take a moment to celebrate in the birth of the two calves, it doesn't mean that the whales' population is on the mend, reports Olivia Rosane for EcoWatch. Whales are especially vulnerable during the calving season since the mother-calf pairs float at the surface, raising their chances of encountering boats. Plus, for this species to evade extinction, experts estimate about 20 births are needed each year. During the 2019-2020 calving season year, ten calves were born; only seven were born during the 2019-2019 season, reports USA Today.

"It's a species that is struggling and it's essentially all hands on deck to try and save these whales," Jessica Powell, a marine mammal biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells CNN. "We advise folks anywhere in the southeast to be really cautious when on the water during the calving season, to look out for calves, slow down around them and give them space. Whatever we can do to give these whales a fighting chance."