Meet Porcia and her baby: Season's first North Atlantic whale mom, calf in Cape Cod Bay
Just in time for the official start of spring, the first North Atlantic right whale mother and calf pair of the season arrived in Cape Cod Bay over the weekend, kicking off a new plea for boaters to be alert and to observe the federal and state 10-knot speed restriction.
An aerial survey team from the Provincetown-based Center for Coastal Studies Right Whale Ecology Program saw the mother and calf March 18.
The mother whale is known to scientists as Porcia. She and her newborn were last seen in late December off the coast of Georgia, where female whales typically go to give birth.
A rare animalReport: North Atlantic right whales continuing to decline
Right whale calf sightings are special events, scientists say
While numerous North Atlantic right whales have been seen feeding in the bay in recent weeks, this arrival is extra special.
"Because of the state of the population, and this calf (representing) hope for the future, it is exciting," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of the right whale ecology program.
"The whales' entry into Cape Cod Bay appears to be getting earlier. It used to be the mothers and calves would come up from the south, where they are born, sometime in April. Last year we had one, I think, the first week of March," Mayo said. "Things are changing in terms of timing."
The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium released a report in the fall estimating only about 340 of the animals remained during 2021. Because their numbers are so severely depleted, Mayo said, any sighting of a healthy calf is "a special event."
"Each one of these little animals − they're not really that little; this one is 13, 14 feet, maybe longer − is the hope for the future," he said.
Earlier in MarchWhales that swam into Cape Cod Canal were young. Researchers may know their mothers.
Boats and aircraft prohibited from being within 500 yards
North Atlantic right whales are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That designation prohibits boats and aircraft from being within 500 yards of them, according to the Center for Coastal Studies, and restricts vessel speeds in designated areas, including Cape Cod waters. The greatest dangers right whales face are entanglement in rope fishing gear and boat strikes, advocates and researchers say.
Each year, most of the world's North Atlantic right whales spend time in Massachusetts and Cape Cod bays as they migrate back and forth between the Canadian Maritimes and waters off Georgia and Florida.
This season, Center for Coastal Studies researchers observed right whales in Cape Cod Bay in late December, and continued spotting them throughout January and February. Earlier this month, a juvenile right whale swam almost the entire length of the Cape Cod Canal before returning to Buzzards Bay, while a second juvenile fed near the canal's outlet on Cape Cod Bay side, causing a nearly 22-hour closure of the waterway.
During the March 18 survey, Mayo said the team saw a total of 52 right whales. They have been seen from the shore off Herring Cove in Provincetown each day since March 16, he said.
Two young whales fall victimRight whale calf dangerously entangled off North Carolina. Seen free of gear last year off Massachusetts
Hope for the endangered species
Mayo said it's remarkable "in our little corner of the world" to be able to see most of the population of an "extraordinarily rare creature" pass through.
This season has brought the birth of 12 right whales in their southeastern birthing grounds, one of which did not survive.
Only about a third of the right whale population consists of females, a concern because of the limited chances for reproduction. Of additional concern is that reproductive females are giving birth at longer intervals than in the past.
As for Porcia's calf, Mayo said, "the hope is that it's a female."
"If this is a precious female, that's a big deal, and hopefully she'll make it," he said. "It's a perilous sea they grow up in."
Taking it slowBoaters beware: Warmer waters put right whales in Cape Cod Bay at risk
With so many right whales and their calves visiting Cape Cod Bay over the course of a season, the state Division of Marine Fisheries places a seasonal 10-knot speed restriction in the bay for vessels less than 65 feet in length from March 1 to April 30, a time frame that can be extended if whales remain in the area. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a 10-knot seasonal speed restriction in and around Cape Cod Bay for vessels 65 feet or greater.
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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Boaters urged to go slow with right whale mom, calf in Cape Cod Bay