By Lauri deGaris
The full moon of November presided over the birth of this season’s first North Atlantic right whale calf. Catalog #1612 – Juno, a 38-year-old North Atlantic right whale gave birth off the coast of South Carolina on Nov. 28, 2023. This is Juno’s 8th known calf. Two of her calves have given birth as well making Juno a grandmother, a whale matriarch.
Juno’s large family has seen plenty of hard times as they have dealt with at least 28 entanglements and two vessel strikes. Thankfully, half of her offspring are still seen regularly. Research to help protect Juno and her large family has never been more important as these whales are considered critically endangered and on the brink of extinction.
New techniques are being developed to help protect this endangered species. Drones are being used to detect the welfare of North Atlantic right whales. Drones are helping scientists better understand behavior patterns between mom and calf without the intrusion of vessels.
Scientists have discovered that a boat near a mom and calf pair causes their behavior to change. When using a drone to observe pairs, belly-to-belly bonding was observed and dolphins were seen playing with whale calves, something researchers had not observed in the past. Other unique observations made possible by drone cameras include footage of dolphins and calves riding the wake produced by mom whales while moving through the water.
Other interesting research includes the study of North Atlantic right whale feces which floats at the water’s surface. The Anderson Cabot Center of Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium has a “Marine Stress and Ocean Health Program” that studies feces to measure whale hormones. Feces is collected without disturbing the whales and gives valuable insight into their health.
For more than 20 years, scientist have collected and analyzed whale poop looking to identify hormone signals, including pregnancy diagnosis, stress, nutritional state and many other health markers. This unique data set has allowed scientists to monitor the overall health of the North Atlantic right whale population. Another tool for determining the health of a whale is to collect exhaled whale breath using a drone. Health markers similar to those collected by analyzing whale poop can be found in whale breath.
Over the years, many mother and calf pairs have been sighted just off the beaches of Amelia Island. One quick and easy way to see if North Atlantic right whales are near our shores is to use the interactive map found at Whalemap. This whale map was designed to communicate whale survey results for effective management practices. Data collected from acoustic buoys, aerial surveillance, and boat observations are uploaded daily and made public for all to use. Research teams from the United States and Canada collaborate, sharing data and strategies designed to protect the estimated 356 remaining North Atlantic right whales.
The 2023-2024 North Atlantic right whale calving season is underway. So far, nine potential right whale mothers to be have been sighted along the coast between North Carolina and Georgia. As soon as I see a North Atlantic right whale has been sighted near our island, you will find me at the beach. I have my binoculars ready and I hope to catch a glimpse of a mom and calf pair enjoying “apricity” – the warmth of the sun on a winter day.
If you are lucky enough to spot a whale call 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Ch. 16. Please have the following information ready: location of whale(s); city, lat/long, nearby landmark; number of whales; direction traveling; are dolphins and birds present; your name and a call back number. Remember to remain at least 500 yards from right whales.
Congratulations to Juno and her calf. We are excited to welcome our newest relation that lives under the waves. We wish you both many years of good health and safety as you swim through life. Click here to see a photo of Juno and her calf.