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Birth of Endangered Whale Photographed – Near Florida Sonar Range

Michael Jasny

Posted March 23, 2010

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Last Saturday morning, researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington had an experience that most whale watchers can only dream of.  They witnessed a North Atlantic right whale – one of the rarest whales on earth – give birth to a calf. 

pregnant North Atlantic right whale

It’s truly a remarkable thing to see any whale give birth in the wild, but to see a North Atlantic right whale is exceptional upon exceptional.  Over the years survey teams have clocked tens of thousands of hours scanning the waters of northern Florida and southern Georgia for these endangered animals, which were hunted to a small remnant in the nineteenth century.  Only one other birth was observed in all that time in the whales’ only known calving grounds.  Only 300 to 400 animals remain.

Click the photo to enlargeNorth Atlantic right whale and newborn calf

But the happy news is not unalloyed.

The waters in which the whale gave birth are just outside the planned site for a major Navy installation, the Undersea Warfare Training Range, or USWTR.  As my colleague Taryn has written before, the Navy intends to conduct year-round sonar training on this offshore range, and the combined threat from sonar and ship collisions over the decades-long life of the range poses an unacceptable risk to the species. 

The Navy has argued that right whales are only found closer to shore, within the nearshore area that had been the subject of previous surveys.  But no one knows where some right whale mothers go to give birth, and certainly the situation called for caution.  Incredibly, the Navy pushed ahead with its plans and selected this potentially important habitat for its range one month after it began, finally, to survey the area.

Click the photo to enlargeEndangered North Atlantic right whale and newborn calf

That kind of backwards planning is inimical to the sound science that the Obama Administration stands for, and NRDC, along with a coalition of groups, filed suit against the Navy and NOAA in January.  Hopefully, the extraordinary occasion of this new birth – and the amazing photos that capture it – will send the administration back to the drawing board.

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Amy MallMar 23 2010 03:43 PM

Michael: The news is equally inspiring and heartbreaking. I wish this calf a long life. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos.

Marcella MatthaeiMar 23 2010 05:59 PM

Thank you Michael and Taryn for working so diligently on behalf of our extremely endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Kudos also to Catherine Wannamaker of SELC. Florida is a very backwards state when it comes to the environment and we have minimal enviro advocating here - these whales are so very threatened, particularly by this proposed Navy Sonar Testing site, and need all the support they can get.

I beg all you wonderful NRDC members to please speak up and help protect the North Atlantic Right Whale and all whales from the Navy and their Sonar!

Tracie ChadwickMar 24 2010 08:43 AM

Please note that the researchers were from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, not the University of North Carolina. There is a difference.

bereniceMar 24 2010 11:01 AM

i got a question are the babys of the whale ok?

malika cheeseMar 24 2010 11:02 AM


Tracey MoriartyMar 24 2010 01:03 PM

We are pleased to hear about the birth of the right whale calf, as it is evidence of continued recovery of this important species. The monitoring program that observed and reported the birth is sponsored by the Navy. This information will be considered to ensure our current and future activities are done in an environmentally responsible manner. - Tracey Moriarty, Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division

Ian WilkerMar 24 2010 02:22 PM

Tracey - given the long history of conflict over the U.S. Navy's desire for unfettered use of active sonar and the well-documented threats active sonar poses to marine life, I hope you'll forgive me for allowing that I do not find the Navy's role as the preeminent sponsor of marine-mammal research comforting in the least.

Michael JasnyMar 24 2010 04:26 PM

To Berenice: The researchers stayed on site for about 20 minutes after the birth. Mom and calf seem to be fine.

To Tracie C.: Thanks for the correction. UNCW is part of the University of North Carolina system, but I recognize that “UNC,” standing alone, is usually taken to mean the Chapel Hill campus. I’ve made the change. Go, Seahawks!

To Tracey M.: I appreciate your statement, as a rep of the Chief of Naval Operations, that the Navy will give due consideration to the new birth. But that pledge just isn’t consistent with the Navy’s current plans. The Navy formally chose this area, among several alternatives, as the site for a new $100 million training range without waiting for its own survey information to come in – contrary to what federal law requires – and as of last week, at least, it planned to go ahead with construction. Will the Navy commit now to withdrawing and reconsidering its choice of the Jacksonville site?

Judy TorrieriMar 25 2010 11:41 AM

It's an amazing story anytime an endangered animal gives birth. It tells us that even with all the oil leaks, contamination and pollution in the water or on land; mother nature allows us to enjoy her most creative accomplishments. Even though we as people in whole have a desire to follow the path of self-destruction, mother nature will do her part to protect the wildlife. I wait for the day when people realize what they truly have around them, the life force that animals emit when you are in their presence. For example, imagine you are standing in a forest of nothing but lush green trees, beautiful flowers and animals carrying on conversations in their own natural way; now tell me what do you feel? EXACTLY! Now imagine a world without that, HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW? As people we have the intelligence to know that if you neglect and abuse something eventually you'll kill it or lose it. So why has the path to destroy wildlife in the world gone so deep? Are our daily lives so busy that we really don't "take time to smell the rose's?' My advice, you better take time to smell the rose's now, before what brings us peace, enough to travel the world for it; is gone.
Think about it, why do you think your doctor or dentist have aquarium's in their office? It's a known fact that aquariums relax you, as do sitting on a front porch listening to the wind and animals going about their business.

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