The Importance Of Seeing Calves

Written by Philip Hamilton

Harmonia’s calf makes a curious approach. Photo: Peter Duley

Right whale calves are the hope of the future. Clearly, without them the population would never grow. Each year, there are thorough surveys of the right whale calving ground off the Southeastern U.S. and most of the calves are first seen there. But to track those calves using photo-identification, we need to photograph them again after they have developed their callosity patterns (generally several months later) and while they are still associated with their mothers. For the most part, this means seeing the pair on the northern feeding grounds.  In recent years, this has been increasingly rare. So not only have we not been able to determine if the calves successfully made the migration north, we have not been able to photo-identify them. All hope is not lost for tracking those calves, as most were genetically sampled on the calving ground. We may eventually get another sample of them as an unknown juvenile, then genetically match them and link that identified individual to the correct mom.

#4094's calf bursts to the surface. Photo: Delphine Durette-Morin

One of the most exciting aspects of our surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year is that we saw five of the 12 calves of the year that we hope are still alive (although 14 calves were born this year, two calves have died). We were able to get very good photographs of all of them, so we will be able to add them to the Catalog and the continuity of that lineage will be documented. This also will allow us to potentially determine who that the fathers are as well.

The calf of #3317 bobs vertically next to mom. Photo: Johanna Anderson

These pairs included: the calf of Harmonia (Catalog #3101)- a 15 y.o. mom with her 2nd calf; #4094- the second youngest mom in 35 years of research at six years of age; 13 year old #3317 with her 2nd calf; and Bocce (#3860)- a first time mom at 8 years old.

Bocce's first calf shows a white chin (visible subsurface). Photo: Peter Duley
Fuse's calf with mud on its head. Photo: Kelsey Howe

We saw the fifth mom, Fuse (#3405)- a 12 year old first time mother- both in the Gulf of St. Lawrence AND 21 days later in the Bay of Fundy (an impressive swim!). It is not uncommon for mothers to travel great distances with their calves- even after completing the migration from the south. One thought is that they are teaching their calves all the different habitats that they may need to use during their (hopefully) long lifetimes.

Fuse and her calf in the Bay of Fundy, 21 days later! Photo: Brigid McKenna

Clipper (#3450) and her calf bring our current tally of pairs seen to six, and have been seen repeatedly in the Bay of Fundy. This pair became well-known when they swam into in Florida’s Sebastian Inlet in February. Our most recent sighting was a rare observation of the mom feeding at the surface. The calf had its mouth open too- either feeding on plankton or imitating its mother. While the calf doesn’t appear to have conquered this feeding technique yet, no doubt it’s learned quite a bit since it probably first practiced in Cape Cod Bay this spring.

Clipper skim feeds in the Bay of Fundy while her calf attempts to master the move. Photo: Ann McGhie

It’s been so great to see all of these calves looking fat and healthy, and a relief to know that we will be able to identify them as they grow older since we’ve collected photographs at this stage of their development. We still have a few survey days ahead of us, so hopefully we will document some of the six pairs remaining to be sighted in this region!