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Endangered right whale mother found dead off Virginia, newborn calf not expected to survive

31 critically endangered whales right whales spotted off Nantucket
31 critically endangered whales right whales spotted off Nantucket 00:31

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Another critically endangered North Atlantic right whale has died on the East Coast. The New England Aquarium says a mother whale who recently gave birth was found dead off Virginia, and her newborn calf "is not expected to survive" without her.

The mother whale's carcass, found Saturday about 50 miles east of Virginia Beach, had been scavenged by sharks. The aquarium said aerial teams have been unable to find the calf, whose life is in jeopardy without her mother.

The whale identified as adult female #1950 was at least 35 years old. She had survived three entanglements in her life and previously raised five calves successfully. The mother and her newborn were last seen healthy off Amelia Island in Florida this February.

The mother right whale and her calf off Georgia in January 2024. Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919

According to the North Atlantic Right Whale catalogue, the mother whale was last sighted in southern New England in 2021, and in the Massachusetts Bay in 2018.

Right whale's cause of death

In an update shared Thursday, the government agency NOAA said experts performed a necropsy on the whale, and all signs indicate she was hit by a boat.

"Preliminary findings included catastrophic injuries with a dislocation of the whale's spine and fractures to all vertebrae in the lower back," NOAA said. "These findings are consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel strike prior to death."

Fourth documented North Atlantic right whale death of 2024

This is the fourth documented right whale death of 2024. In addition, the aquarium says three newborn calves have disappeared.

In January, a young right whale washed up dead on a Martha's Vineyard beach. Scientists say she got tangled up in fishing gear from Maine.

And in February, the aquarium said the species suffered a "significant" loss when a 1-year-old was found dead of Savannah, Georgia. 

"More needs to be done"

Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement are the leading causes of death for right whales, whose global population is estimated to be fewer than 360. If female whales live a long life, they can give birth to 10 or more calves. 

"The situation so far in 2024 for right whales highlights the fact that much more needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this species," aquarium scientist Amy Knowlton, who helped identify the whale, said in a statement. "It is frustrating that solutions that could address these threats are not being implemented more immediately."

In Massachusetts, there's a proposal to put speed limits on fast ferries to Cape Cod and the Islands in order to protect whales. The ferry companies counter that this would drastically reduce service, and say their captains have never seen a right whale on the job. 

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