RALEIGH, N.C. — A rare whale found stranded on North Carolina’s Outer Banks last week was the first known calf of the season and likely died during or shortly after birth, experts say.
The North Atlantic right whale — one of the rarest marine mammals in the world — was found on the North Core Banks, according to a news release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Biologists performed a necropsy and took DNA samples from the whale Saturday to determine a cause of death and “hopefully” track down its mother, the National Park Service posted on Facebook.
Now, experts believe the calf was already dead when it stranded.
Karen Duggan, a park ranger at Cape Lookout National Seashore, said the whale likely died either during or right after birth then washed ashore on the Outer Banks.
“It just didn’t make it,” Duggan said.
Adult right whales are usually about 55 feet long, Duggan said, but the calf was only 6 feet long and still had its umbilical cord attached.
The calf was buried in a remote area of the beach.
The whale was the first documented calf of the season, according to NOAA.
“Each new right whale calf brings so much hope for this critically endangered species, and losses like this have a substantial impact on their recovery,” NOAA said in the release.
Roughly 360 North Atlantic right whales remain in the world, according to the NPS, and between five and six calves are born each year.
The species is considered “one of the world’s most endangered” large whales, NOAA says. Since 2010, deaths have been outpacing births among the species, and since 2017, 22 births and 31 deaths have been recorded. Less than 100 “breeding females” remain in the world.
Winter is the species’ “calving season,” when females give birth after traveling from the waters off New England and Canada to the water off the southern United States.
NOAA says the season is “off to a devastating start.”
Human interactions are the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales.
Fishing gear entanglement and collisions with boats are among the most common reasons marine mammals strand, NOAA says, though neither is thought to have played a role in the calf’s death.
“Increasing ocean noise levels from human activities interferes with whale communication and is also a concern.”
Duggan said right whales are active off the North Carolina coast this time of year and that it’s important to watch out for them and to drive boats or other vessels slowly in certain areas. The whales can be difficult to see as they don’t have a fin and move slowly.
“That was not the problem with the baby, but we don’t want to have that be the problem with the mama,” Duggan said. “She’s still out there.”