If the holiday season is said to bring joy, then a second spotting and crystal-clear video of a North Atlantic right whale mother and her baby must top that feeling.
Watching the two effortlessly glide through rippling waters off Georgia’s coast is pure jubilation.
Called “Juno” by researchers, the 38-year-old mother of eight was seen swimming with her new calf about 7 nautical miles from Sapelo Island, a state-protected barrier island located in McIntosh County, Georgia.
The calf, strokes away from its mother and deeper below the blue-green water, still nearly touches her as it surges forward. Juno, moving more slowly, looks to almost drift through the quiet sea as if they were the only two in it.
During a Nov. 24 flight survey, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute scientists observed the mama and baby right whales off the coast of South Carolina and deemed them the first pair sighted in the 2023-2024 calving season. The Institute spotted Juno and baby on Dec. 4.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division narrowed the calf’s age to less than 2 weeks. The calf’s mother was named Juno after a Roman goddess.
“The name is for the whale’s ‘Roman nose’ – or her convex-shaped rostrum – the goddess was linked to married life, including childbirth,” Georgia DNR said. “Thankfully, the ocean-going Juno has that characteristic.”
Senior wildlife biologist Jessica Thompson, who leads marine mammal work for Georgia’s DNR, said Tuesday that the boat crew filmed drone footage but chose not to more closely approach the mother and new calf for samples. Still, just about everyone will revel in the majestic video.
Juno and her baby safely made it through the courses that continue to threaten the critically endangered species: Shipping traffic.
When the mammals leave their summer homes in New England for their winter stays off the coasts of Florida and the Carolinas for their calving grounds, they are susceptible to boat strikes and entanglement. The busy ports of Savannah and Charleston can be dangerous for migrating right whales, a place where large ships are cautioned to slow at the sight of these gentle giants but don’t always obey the warning.
Centuries ago, whaling decimated the North Atlantic right whale population. Over a decade ago, the population peaked at 500. But by 2017 that had number dwindled significantly, with mostly vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear to blame.
Now, there are about 360 North Atlantic right whales left. Fewer than 70 are females that can reproduce.
Pregnant right whales traveling down to waters off the southeast to give birth and pairs that swim back up to the Northeast for feeding grounds, pass through heavily industrialized waters with busy shipping lanes, as well as commercial pot/trap lobster and snow crab fisheries, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Through its research, the fund revealed that between 2003 and 2018, 88.4% of determinable North Atlantic right whale deaths were caused by vessel strikes and entanglement.
From 2017 to 2023, there were 36 documented right whale deaths, and 85 serious injuries and morbidities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Department reported.
Marked as “Seasonal Management Areas” in designated spots off the coasts of northeast Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, federal law says all regulated vessels 65 feet or greater must travel at 10 knots or less in those specified areas between Nov. 1 and April 30. The specification is to protect the traveling species from ship strikes.
Compliance rates of Savannah and Charleston harbors are “consistently below 5%,” according to marinewhale.com.
To learn about whales possibly in the area, download the Whale Alert app. Any sightings can be reported to 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or by hailing the U.S. Coast Guard on marine VHF channel 16.