A Mothers Day Right Whale Tale

Many readers have probably heard some of the dramatic stories surrounding the North Atlantic right whale.  Sadly most of the tales one hears usually ends in injury or death, but this Mothers Day weekend I’ll share a story that few outside the science geek world of right whale scientists have heard. 

The right whale population is monitored by planes contracted by NOAA to fly a pattern over the seasonal habitat of the whales. Three years ago the team from the New England Aquarium spotted bubbling pools of blood coming up next to a 50 foot right whale.

1210356026_1210 The odds are when one comes across a scene such as this the whale has usually been a victim of a traumatic ship strike. The whale was rolled up on its side, but there was no visible wound. The red-tinged water around the whale’s belly and tail flukes was breaking up quickly due to the turbulence of created by the thrashing whale. Somehow, the whale’s movement seemed more rhythmic and purposeful than just a spasmodic reaction to pain. Then the whale dropped below the water’s surface. Three and a half minutes had passed since the lone whale was first spotted. Suddenly, the whale resurfaced without any thrashing. An object about one quarter the length of the adult appeared alongside it. There was no longer just one whale but two – a mother and her new born calf!

The drama associated with invigorating new life wasn’t over yet. The approximately twelve-foot, one ton calf was listless, and its tail flukes appeared to be curled under. It just lay still for what seemed like an eternity. The mother again dipped from the surface and when she reappeared the calf was draped limply over her back. The calf then rolled off its mother’s back and began to swim. Over the next fifteen minutes, the calf stayed within a half body’s length of its mother making frequent body contact and rolling. A few times, the pair surfaced with the calf positioned near its mother’s flippers, which is where nursing would take place. The water was too murky to observe any actual suckli1210357430_1493_2ng, but the crew was encouraged. After twenty minutes, the plane needed to move on.

A few weeks later, Cat's Paw and her baby, now named Resolution, were spotted swimming together.

Despite thousands of hours of flights to monitor right whales in their calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and northern Florida, no human had ever seen the birth of a North Atlantic right whale, the most endangered large whale in the Atlantic. In a population of less than 400, every new right whale calf is a cause for celebration in the effort to battle their extinction.

Beyond the trauma of giving birth, motherhood in the world of right whales is highly demanding and requires a maternal dedication that is awe-inspiring.

Here are a few good to know facts:

      1. Late each autumn, pregnant females swim over 1000 miles from New England
          waters to their calving grounds near the Florida/Georgia border. The maternal
          strategy to have newborn calves with little blubber enter the world in the much
          warmer waters to the south.

      2. Right whale mothers essentially fast for four months while they are at the calving
          grounds and on the migration each way. Once out of New England waters, their
          preferred food of animal plankton is too low in density to make feeding         

      3. Calves are still hungry and must nurse on their near cottage cheese-like milk of
          their mothers to gain the hundreds of pounds that they gain weekly. Scientist
          postulate that over the course of the late pregnancy and  a year of nursing, right
          whale mothers can lose 10 - 30% of their average 50 ton weight or anywhere from
          10,000 to 30,000 pounds.

Later photo analysis by New England Aquarium researcher Heather Pettis revealed that the mother was called “Cat’s Paw”, a namesake for a small white scar that the whale has on its shoulder.

The photos was taken in the winter of 2005 and have just been published in the scientific journal Aquatic Mammals. The delay in the release to the mass media is an unfortunate necessity for scientists who must first publish in academic venues.

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