Endangered whale calf found dead off North Carolina coast

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WILMINGTON, NC — A highly endangered North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead last weekend near Morehead City along North Carolina’s central coast.

The death is a major blow to a species already under severe stress from ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements and climate change. Fewer than 350 marine mammals still swim off the Atlantic coast between Canada’s Maritime Provinces and northern Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The young calf was first seen near Beaufort Inlet on Jan. 3 by a member of the public, who reported the sighting to local conservationists. A search by local and foreign researchers, including a team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute in Florida, soon found the calf, but not her mother.

“The aerial survey team expanded their search in hopes of locating and identifying an adult whale that could be the potential mother,” the NOAA wrote in an online post. “However, no other whales have been found in the area.”

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The calf was found dead under a pier in Morehead City Harbor on Saturday, according to NOAA, and response teams have recovered the carcass and performed an autopsy. The calf, estimated to be no more than a few weeks old, appeared to be underweight and in relatively poor health.

Newborn calves cannot survive for long without their mothers, according to the NOAA. “There are very few intervention options for the stranded network given the size of the animals and their specialized needs.”

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The whereabouts and health of the calf’s mother are unknown.

“This calf will be added as the 93rd whale to the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event that the species has experienced since 2017,” the NOAA said.

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Aerial survey teams locate and document the lone whale calf in Beaufort Inlet.

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North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered mammals in the world. Long hunted for their oil and meat, the whales got the name because they swam close to shore and floated long after they were killed, thus being the “right” whale for the 19th century whalers to pursue. By the early 1900s, the estimated population had plummeted to barely a hundred animals.