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March 24, 2010

Endangered Right Whale Seen Giving Birth

And it's right where the Navy wants a warfare training range

The Humane Society of the United States

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    The mother whale just before the birth. NOAA/Scientific

     

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    The mother helps the new baby to the surface after birth. NOAA/Scientific.

     

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    The mother whale with calf right after birth start to swim together. NOAA/Scientific.

     

Who doesn’t love animal babies—with their big, luminous eyes, tiny faces, and fluffy bodies? But what if the baby is dripping wet, hairless, and 13-feet long? What’s so cute about that? A lot if you’re a mother North Atlantic right whale, one of only 350 right whales left in the world.

Not only is that your baby, but it's also the future of your species. If you're a researcher studying right whales or an advocate fighting to protect them, the sight of a newborn right whale is thrilling beyond words.

Because right whales can roam far offshore, only one birth has ever been witnessed. On March 20th, that changed.

An aerial survey team from the University of North Carolina and Duke University was surveying more than 30 miles off Florida's coast when they came upon a female right whale at the water's surface acting unusually restless. They observed her for several minutes, thinking she may be entangled in fishing gear or in distress.

As they watched her struggle, she dove below the surface and disappeared. Several minutes later a dark cloud of what appeared to be blood rose to the surface, and the team feared the worst. The team was circling the spot where she had disappeared when the new mother suddenly emerged, pushing her tiny calf to the surface for its first breath. The mother was later identified as a female named Derecha (Spanish for "right") who also gave birth to calves in 2004 and 2007.

The calf's skin was flawless ebony, with deep wrinkles (called fetal folds) on its side from being curled up in his mother's womb. Its tail flukes, which will grow to over 10-feet in width during its lifetime, were small and the tips still curled under from their cramped position inside the mother.

After taking a few visible breaths, mom allowed the calf to float on its own, and they began to slowly swim together. The researchers watched for a few more minutes and then continued on their survey.

While nursing, the right whale calf will suckle up to 100 gallons a day of it's mother's rich milk, more than doubling in size in their first year of life. Right whale mothers are vigilant the first year, when the calf stays close to mom.

Despite a protective mother, calves are especially vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and being hit by ships, the leading causes of death in right whales. Government estimates state that 2 of every 4 right whale calves will not reach adulthood.

The birth of this calf took place about 30 miles offshore of Florida, adjacent to an area that the U.S. Navy wants to use for submarine warfare training exercises. The Navy had asserted that right whales are never in this area. The HSUS has filed suit to demand that adequate consideration be given to the risk to right whales.

The HSUS has successfully sued the government in the past to force additional risk reduction measures for commercial fisheries and to obtain a government mandate for slow ship speeds in right whale high use areas.

The HSUS is currently suing the government over the siting of this Navy training range and has petitioned the government for expanded critical habitat areas for right whales. The HSUS is committed to protecting this fragile species and assuring a secure future for this new calf and her mother.

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