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close-up of right whale 1412 head with callosities Right whale #1412 photographed April 20 in Cape Cod Bay. She was last seen in 2003 off Iceland. Right whales can be individually identified by the pattern of callosities, which appear white or yellow due to the presence of whale lice, on their heads. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christin Khan, NEFSC. Photos taken with research permit #17355.
whale calf swimming away Right whale #1412's calf. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christin Khan, NEFSC.

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April 25, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Mystery Right Whale Mother/Calf Pair Seen in Cape Cod Bay

NEFSC researchers and colleagues have obtained genetic samples from a right whale who’s been something of a mystery for more than 30 years. The mother has been identified by the New England Aquarium, which maintains the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, as #1412. She was last seen in 2003 off Iceland.

On April 20, marine mammal researcher Lisa Conger was out with NEFSC colleagues Allison Henry and Christin Khan and New England Aquarium colleagues Kelsey Howe and Marilyn Marx. “After a morning of thick thick fog, we found #1412 and her calf,” said Conger, who was the biopsy darter. “We were able to biopsy sample both the mom and the calf. This will be exciting genetic information for the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.”

This female might be part of the eastern North Atlantic right whale population that is thought to be extinct, or it might be a western North Atlantic right whale with rather odd movements. The biopsy sample will help answer that question.

Right whale #1412 has only been seen four times. She was first seen with a calf in 1984, and sighted again with a calf in 1997, both times in October in the Gulf of Maine. In 1995 she was sighted off southern Greenland, and in 2003 off Iceland. Then, almost two weeks ago, the Center for Coastal Studies aerial survey plane discovered a new mother/calf pair in Cape Cod Bay, eventually identifying the mother as #1412.

Conger and NEFSC colleagues began surveying local waters for right whales and other species April 3 from their small boat, R/V Selkie, and have been out eight times since then. On April 14 during one of the surveys they located a dead female right whale in Cape Cod Bay. Necropsy results indicate the young whale died from a ship strike, one of the leading causes of right whale deaths.

Given the poor visibility on April 20, the group started listening for whale blows (exhaling) in order to locate whales. Around 2:30 or so the fog started to lift and ‘three boxy heads, skim feeding” were sighted about three miles away. The boat headed to the area and found a lot of sei whales mixed in with feeding right whales.

“THEN....a whale with a tell tale big white scar surfaced and Marilyn (Marx) says something like....'’this animal has a big white scar below the bonnet' and we all stood frozen for a moment and then...the calf popped up! and everyone started to scramble,” Conger recalled in a message to a colleague. “It was all very exciting. We sampled the calf first and then the mom.”

Large groups of right whales have been seen in Cape Cod Bay waters in the past few weeks. On two occasions, over 200 individual right whales were seen in a single day. This accounts for almost half of the known population, which is believed to be fewer than 500 animals. The right whales usually aggregate in Cape Cod Bay and waters around the Cape during the spring and early summer to feed before heading north. Unusual numbers of sei whales have also been sighted in the bay feeding on the same zooplankton as the right whales. A bowhead whale, normally seen only in Arctic waters, was sighted April 14 by the NEFSC's aerial survey team feeding alongside right and sei whales in the Great South Channel.

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