New Brunswick

Newborn right whale calf found dead in U.S. waters, mother's condition unknown

A newborn North Atlantic right whale calf has been found dead under a pier in North Carolina. 

Baby first spotted swimming alone in inland waters of North Carolina

An aerial photo showing a North Atlantic right whale calf in clear blue water.
This photo of the calf was taken by an aerial team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #24359, funded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. (Submitted by Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute)

A newborn North Atlantic right whale calf has been found dead under a pier in North Carolina. 

Scientists hadn't known about the male calf's existence until Jan. 3, when it was spotted alive and swimming alone in inland waters, said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

Hamilton said the calf was the 11th documented birth this season for the endangered species. 

Based on the images captured, experts estimated the male calf was no more than a couple of weeks old. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States, the calf appeared to be underweight and in poor health. 

Melanie White, manager of the right whale conservation project at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute in Florida, said their aerial teams routinely spend hours combing the ocean waters trying to spot and identify right whales. 

a graphic shows an adult and baby right whale, surrounded by statistics.
Only about a third of right whale deaths are documented, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA)

She said three teams were out on regular patrols on Jan. 3 when they got word about a calf swimming near a pier in Morehead City, North Carolina. 

One team wasn't far away, so they headed to the pier where they were able to take some pictures of the young calf. White said they eventually headed back to open waters to search for the mother, but couldn't find any other right whales in the area. 

White said researchers lost sight of the calf that day. Four days later, its carcass was discovered under the pier. 

White doesn't believe the calf ever made it back to the open ocean. 

Genetic testing

Hamilton said genetic samples taken from the calf will be sent to Saint Mary's University in Halifax to try to determine its relatives. 

But that, he said, could take "a year or two" to figure out.

When researchers first heard about the lone calf, Hamilton said they quickly checked on the 10 live calves that were born in the preceding few weeks. He said all were accounted for, making the calf the 11th birth of the season. 

A man wearing a hat and sunglasses with water in the background
Philip Hamilton is the senior scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. He has been studying North Atlantic right whales for 35 years. (Submitted by New England Aquarium)

Hamilton said most right whale babies are born in December and January, but some births happen as late as the end of March. 

So far, this season is on par with last year, when 15 calves were born — not as good as the average of 23 in the early 2000s, but not as bad as the zero births recorded in 2018, said Hamilton. 

He said infant mortalities happen from time to time among right whales.

"Sometimes a calf comes up on the beach and is already found dead and we can determine through the necropsy process that it didn't take its first breath," said Hamilton.

"This is a more unusual situation where we see the calf alive and there's no known mother attributed to it."

Hamilton said it's very unusual for calves to be on their own. Normally they spend at least a year with their mothers. 

He said right whale mothers produce a "tremendous amount" of milk to nurse their calves.

"We don't really have any way to keep a young nursing calf alive in captivity," he said. "So, as of now, no, we don't really have any options when we find a lone calf."

Hamilton said there have been no female carcasses found recently that would explain why the calf was on its own. 

He also said there's never been a documented case of a mother rejecting its calf, so that seems unlikely.

A necropsy is being done on the calf, but those results won't be known for several months.

Each death is a significant blow

"The right whale population has been declining fairly rapidly for the last 10 years and obviously successful calving is an important part of their recovery," said Hamilton.

He said the loss of a single right whale calf "really sets the population back as well as being really tragic."


Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at