Posted on March 15, 2023
We’ve officially come full circle on our right whale season, having spotted the same whale on both her south and northbound migrations!
On 22 November 2022, two migrating North Atlantic right whales (NARW) were spotted on an aerial survey. Both were females and known to the NARW catalog—“Smoke” (#2605) and “Caterpillar” (#3503). “Smoke” was tagged with a CATS suction cup tag equipped with 4K video, hydrophone, and multiple sensors to better understand dive and surface behavior.
Unknown at the time, Smoke was pregnant and subsequently sighted with her new calf by the CMARI GA aerial team off the coast of St. Catherines Island, GA almost five weeks later on 26 December 2023. This is Smoke’s fourth calf and one of only 12 North Atlantic right whale calves born this season. (Unfortunately one was found dead near Morehead City, North Carolina after being seen swimming close to shore without its mother in January.)
Our team saw “Smoke” once again with her calf about 30 miles off the coast of Virginia on Sunday 05 March 2023. The vessel team deployed the drone to collect identification and measurement data, assess overall health, check for entanglement in fishing gear, and document the sighting. Smoke’s latest calf has been confirmed as female and was very playful, spending a lot of time at or near the surface.
“Caterpillar” was also resighted in the southeast. “Caterpillar” suffered a vessel strike at the age of 2, which she survived, but has never been seen with a calf. Sadly, the whale that washed up dead in Virginia Beach earlier in the year due to injuries consistent with a vessel strike, was her brother (#3343). Their aunt and older sister were also victims of vessel strike.
When not in the air or on the water, the HDR team has been busy analyzing the data that came from the CATS tag deployed on “Smoke”. The figure below shows the dive profile plot for the duration of the tag attachment from roughly 4pm to 2am EST with time along the x-axis and depth of the tag on the y-axis.
A few simple takeaways after a preliminary look at the dive profile data:
With an understanding that most large ships have a draft of between 6-12 meters, it seems more than reasonable to suggest that during at least this portion of her journey south towards the calving grounds that this right whale was at a very high risk for vessel strike.
Understanding how endangered right whales utilize the western Mid-Atlantic waters helps stakeholders and regulators develop more meaningful mitigation measures and strategies aimed at long-term conservation of the species.
A reminder to all mariners to keep an eye out for whales all along the east coast and to slow your speed down to reduce the risk of vessel strikes. Based on observations and supporting tag data, you simply won’t see them until it’s too late. You should not approach North Atlantic right whales within 500 yards. Go slow whales below.
All research is conducted under NMFS scientific research permit 21482 issued to Dan Engelhaupt.