Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale - North AmericaDon't fail our whale
Before they were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1890s, tens of thousands of North Atlantic right whales migrated along the east coast of Canada and the US.
Now, an estimated 340 North Atlantic right whales remain—fewer than 70 of them reproductive females.
Human activity has decimated this species, first through whaling (they got their name by being the “right whales” to hunt) and now through fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. With numbers so low, every single right whale calf is vital for this critically endangered species to survive.
Scientists believe at least 50 calves need to be born each year for many years to allow the species to recover. But during last year’s calving season, only 12 were documented. One of them, a newborn male spotted swimming without his mother, did not survive.
Pilgrim, a 10-year-old female North Atlantic right whale, gave conservationists a reason to celebrate. Last calving season, she birthed her first calf. Beachgoers spotted them off the Canaveral National Seashore in Florida on December 30, 2022. Less than a week later, they were sighted near St. Lucie Inlet, farther south than right whales typically venture.
The first new mother of the 2022-2023 calving season, Pilgrim was the only one under the age of 20, with several in their thirties and forties. This is significant because female right whales currently have an average lifespan of around 45 years—down from their natural lifespan of 70 to 100 years, because human-caused factors place too much stress on bodies already vulnerable from reproduction. Physical trauma from entanglements and vessel strikes also affects their ability to support a healthy pregnancy. Their natural three-year birthing interval between calves is now six to ten years.
That means that, statistically, many of the mothers from this year’s calving season are likely approaching the end of their reproductive lives, while Pilgrim is just beginning hers.
Pilgrim is a vital member of this species. Unfortunately, she is not immune to the threats right whales face, and she already bears the scars of at least one entanglement.
Even as a newborn herself, Pilgrim beat the odds stacked against her. Born to a mother who had suffered a traumatic entanglement, Pilgrim survived despite being smaller than usual and born in colder waters.
Named after her initial sighting in Cape Cod Bay near the Pilgrim Power Station in 2013, she was the first confirmed birth in the region during the winter. Right whales typically travel to the southeast calving grounds off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, where the waters are warm enough to keep calves with little blubber alive.
Not only that, but she was the seventh—and last—recorded calf born to a whale called Wart, who had suffered a two-year entanglement that cut into her upper jaw and skull. The Center for Coastal Studies’ entanglement response team freed Wart from the life-threatening entanglement just a few years before she gave birth to Pilgrim.
Wart sadly hasn’t been sighted since 2014, when Pilgrim was a year old. It is increasingly likely that she died unobserved, estimated to have reached the age of 43.
From seven calves, Wart’s family has grown to include 30 right whales, or roughly 9% of the current population—a shining example of how one whale can make a huge difference in the population size of the whole species.
It’s too soon to know whether Pilgrim will follow in her mother’s wake and birth several more calves. For now, she and her first calf face tremendous challenges not only to their own survival but that of their entire species.
On June 11, 2023, overlooking the striking backdrop of Nantucket Sound, a bronze sculpture titled ‘Pilgrim and calf’ by renowned artist Geoffrey C. Smith was unveiled before an audience of passionate onlookers which included IFAW, its Board of Directors and Trustees, esteemed guests, and celebrated biologist and TV personality Jeff Corwin.
Purchased and gifted to IFAW by Board member and passionate wildlife conservationist Barbara Birdsey, the sculpture will be featured on a series of visits to institutions and museums up and down the East Coast with the goal of raising awareness for a species on the brink of extinction.
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