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Whoa baby: Rare pair of creatures sighted off SC coast are first of the season

In the vast Atlantic waters, near South Carolina’s coast, researchers captured an image of hope.

Gliding through the sea was a North Atlantic right whale mother and her baby. The calf, that nearly touched its mother as it cruised forward, is no older than 4. Juno, the baby’s mother, is an estimated 38 years old and has successfully birthed eight calves in her lifetime.

Juno and baby are the first pair sighted in the 2023-2024 calving season, which begins in November, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute reported Wednesday. Last week, the institute’s team spotted seven right whales swimming off the coasts between North Carolina and Georgia.

The image of the mother and baby is tender and majestic. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, theirs holds a tale that’s harrowing and visceral. And it begins the moment a calf is born.

Right whales are up against man-made threats of the sea.

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.

“Each calf born represents hope for this critically endangered species,” said Sarah Sharp, an animal rescue veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Currently, there are about 360 North Atlantic right whales left. Fewer than 70 are females that can reproduce.

Centuries ago, whalers gave the species the right whale moniker because the slow-moving mammals that liked to hang out near the shore were the “right” ones to kill. Whaling decimated the North Atlantic right whale population. Over a decade ago, there were 500 of the animals at peak population. But by 2017, that number fell drastically. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear were mainly to blame.

Between 2017 and 2023, there were 36 documented right whale deaths, and 85 serious injuries and morbidities, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Department. In that five-year span, there were 69 births.

Three years between births is what researchers consider a healthy interval, but that number is currently between six and 10 years. Biologists say the longer interval between births is likely due to stress of entanglement, climate change, vessel strikes and ocean noise, NOAA Fisheries reported.

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, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said.

Through research the fund led, it found that between 2003 and 2018, 88.4% of determinable North Atlantic right whale deaths were caused by vessel strikes and entanglement.

And South Carolina waters aren’t particularly kind to right whales.

In Seasonal Management Areas designated 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 specified areas between Nov. 1 and April 30 to protect the species from ship strikes.

Compliance rates of Savannah and Charleston harbors are “consistently below 5%,” according to marinewhale.com.

“It is extremely important through these seasonal management areas to provide a safe haven for mothers and calves in the only known calving ground for this species,” said James “Buddy” Powell, Executive Director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.