Punctuation’s Calf

right whale head
Punctuation's calf, lifting his head out of the water on April 21. Photo: Marilyn Marx, NEFSC/NEAq under NOAA Research Permit 17355-1.

Punctuation (Catalog #1281) and her calf were one of the pairs that remained in Cape Cod Bay late into April, and were last seen on April 28. On May 5, the right whale community received news we all dread to hear: the carcass of a right whale had been discovered. Identified as Punctuation’s calf, the whale was reported dead off Morris Island in Chatham, MA, by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Fortunately the Harbor Master Office was able to tow the carcass that same day. The necropsy took place in the morning, coordinated by International Fund for Animal Welfare and with assistance from many organizations including University of North Carolina and the Virginia Aquarium.


right whale calf dead on beach
The calf was towed to the beach for necropsy. Photo: Marilyn Marx, New England Aquarium

The findings from the examination of the calf were consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel, including nine large propeller cuts along the underside, and multiple broken and fractured bones. Additional findings indicate the injuries occurred before death, but the results from histopathology needed to confirm this are still pending. Punctuation has not been seen since she lost her calf—we desperately hope she was not also injured. Right whale ship strike mortality rates have dropped since the speed rule for large ships was put into place, but we know there is still work to be done on this topic.


Researchers stand around carcass on sand
New England Aquarium scientist Kathleen Hunt inspects a deep propeller cut on the lower jaw and a nearly severed flipper in 2016. Photo: Marilyn Marx, New England Aquarium.

The necropsy was necessary to determine the cause of death, but it also allowed the collection of numerous body parts for research purposes, so at least the death of this calf will help advance our knowledge of this species.

UPDATE: July 13

NOAA released their official findings the cause of Punctuation’s calf’s death: The necropsy results on the right whale calf found floating off Morris Island near Chatham, MA on May 5 show that the cause of mortality was a vessel strike. The necropsy showed 9 propeller wounds on its belly, with several extending on to the sides of the body, peduncle and tail. The calf had multiple fractured bones, and soft tissue findings were consistent with a vessel strike that occurred before death.

NOAA Fisheries urges boaters to watch out for whales this time of year, and to proceed slowly, 10 knots or less, in areas where whales have been reported. Right whales, particularly, can be found at times just below the surface, making them difficult to see and especially vulnerable to boat strikes.