On February 12, a baby North Atlantic right whale washed up on the beach at Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine. The male was about a month old, and he and his mother, a 19-year-old named Infinity, had earlier been spotted playing in the shallow water near the coast, NOAA reported. His loss is devastating: There are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left on earth.
The baby whale had suffered deep and severe propeller cuts on his back and head when struck by a boat on Friday night. Infinity was not seen for several days after the death of her baby, but when spotted on February 16, she too showed cuts in her side. Scientists are trying to assess the severity of her wounds through underwater videos.
This is the first right whale vessel strike death in U.S. waters in 2021, but boat strikes killed two calves in January and June of last year. One mother has still not been re-sighted.
That fate’s all too common for this most endangered resident of the planet. Since 2017, there have been only 22 Atlantic right whale births recorded, but this season there have been 17 new calves born, according to Defenders of Wildlife. It offers hope for the whale’s diminishing numbers.
The North Atlantic right whale was hunted to near extinction prior to the 1970 law ending U.S. whaling. It stays fairly close to shore, and its natural habitat often conflicts with major shipping lanes, where these accidents occur far too often.
According to NOAA, right whales also face danger from entanglement in fishing gear that can hamper eating, or cause infections. Entanglements are another reason female right whales experience reproductive problems.
In New England coastal lobster farms have ropes and buoys strung out off the beach like a maze of bedded nails, according to Karl Meyer, an environmental advocate in Massachusetts.
“[Lobster] is just an ocean farming operation at this point,” said Meyer. “Last October on my way to the Outer Cape I watched a Fin Back breach three times, maybe 400 feet offshore. We just refuse to give these creatures any room.”
Climate change also hampers recovery. Scientists say as oceans warm, these whales follow the food, frequently expanding to new areas where they face fewer protections.
Though Atlantic right whales are primarily seen along Florida’s east coast, they’ve been sighted in the Gulf recently. Their spawning grounds are the Southeast Atlantic coast, from South Carolina to South Florida, “have now become a killing ground,” said Jane Davenport, attorney for Defenders.
The federal government has not increased right whales’ protection from vessel strikes in U.S. waters since 2008, but conservation groups are pressing the Biden administration for more protections for these magnificent creatures.
To learn more about whales and how to help them visit NOAA.