Last Saturday morning, researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington had an experience that most whale watchers can only dream of. They witnessed a North Atlantic right whale – one of the rarest whales on earth – give birth to a calf.
It’s truly a remarkable thing to see any whale give birth in the wild, but to see a North Atlantic right whale is exceptional upon exceptional. Over the years survey teams have clocked tens of thousands of hours scanning the waters of northern Florida and southern Georgia for these endangered animals, which were hunted to a small remnant in the nineteenth century. Only one other birth was observed in all that time in the whales’ only known calving grounds. Only 300 to 400 animals remain.
But the happy news is not unalloyed.
The waters in which the whale gave birth are just outside the planned site for a major Navy installation, the Undersea Warfare Training Range, or USWTR. As my colleague Taryn has written before, the Navy intends to conduct year-round sonar training on this offshore range, and the combined threat from sonar and ship collisions over the decades-long life of the range poses an unacceptable risk to the species.
The Navy has argued that right whales are only found closer to shore, within the nearshore area that had been the subject of previous surveys. But no one knows where some right whale mothers go to give birth, and certainly the situation called for caution. Incredibly, the Navy pushed ahead with its plans and selected this potentially important habitat for its range one month after it began, finally, to survey the area.
That kind of backwards planning is inimical to the sound science that the Obama Administration stands for, and NRDC, along with a coalition of groups, filed suit against the Navy and NOAA in January. Hopefully, the extraordinary occasion of this new birth – and the amazing photos that capture it – will send the administration back to the drawing board.