May 6th, 2016. CHATHAM – A North Atlantic right whale calf, one of just 14 born this winter off Georgia, was found dead Thursday in the channel between mainland Chatham and Monomoy Island.
Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said he was notified of the whale Thursday morning. Deputy Harbormaster Jason Holm and Wharfinger Mike Ryder located it drifting in the channel off Morris Island and pushed it ashore near the Stage Harbor Light. They reported the whale appeared to have been hit by a vessel and there was no sign of entanglement in line or gear, Smith said.
The whale, which had died recently, is between 27 and 28 feet long and had been identified earlier this year by the New England Aquarium, said Misty Niemeyer, necropsy coordinator for the Yarmouth Port-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, which responded to examine the whale in Thursday’s spitting rain.
The calf was last spotted in Cape Cod Bay on April 28 with its mother “Punctuation.” Most right whales left the bay as the spring plankton bloom waned. The calf found Thursday was first seen January 12 off Georgia with its mother, according to National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel. Punctuation is a successful mother who has given birth to eight calves, Goebel said. Two, including the one found Thursday, have died in their first year.
Right whale calves nurse for 10 to 12 months, so the dead calf was still nursing, according to Goebel.
The New England Aquarium reported 14 calves born this winter, and spokesman Tony LaCasse said this is the second to die since January. Two other great whales died in the past week with an emaciated juvenile humpback washing ashore in Duxbury and a minke whale coming ashore dead in Biddeford, Maine, entangled in fishing gear.
Although the dead right whale calf has wounds on it, officials won’t be able to confirm what killed it until a full necropsy, or animal autopsy, has been performed, Niemeyer said.
The whale will be anchored where it is at the end of Harding Beach near the Stage Harbor channel overnight and the necropsy will be done Friday. It will then be buried on the beach.
North Atlantic right whales are the most endangered of the great whales with around 500 individuals left. Scientists have determined that, to ensure population growth, a maximum of a whale a year can be lost to causes other than natural mortality. Human-caused deaths of right whales averaged over 4½ a year between 2008 and 2012.
The whales congregate every year to feed in Cape Cod Bay, which is a designated “critical habitat” for the species. It’s a violation of the Endangered Species Act to get closer than 500 yards to live right whales.