Friday, May 15, 2009

Baldy, Mother of the Year

Photo caption: Mother and calf touching – While on the calving grounds off of Florida and Georgia,, calves and mothers are nuzzling, touching and nudging continually over the first couple months of life in touching displays of maternal affection. Credit: “Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.”

Tony LaCasse, Media Relations Director of the New England Aquarium, wrote in their Mother's Day press release:

This year’s standout right whale mother has the unflattering name of “Baldy”. She was seen with her 8th calf this season, which ties the known record. She has been giving birth to calves for at least 35 years. Also this winter, she had both daughters and granddaughters also give birth. As of this year, Baldy has been responsible for bringing at least 18 right whales into this world, which is nearly 5% of the entire population! That clearly shows the difference that a single mother can make and how important it is to keep these mothers safe from human-caused hazards including vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

The press release also went on to say:

  1. The Incredibly Long Swim to the Hospital - Finding a safe place to give birth is a concern for all mothers. Going well beyond the frenzied human drive to a hospital, right whale mothers make a hazardous nearly 1000 mile journey down the East Coast. The maternal strategy is a desire not to have newborn calves burning up valuable calories in cold, northern waters.

  2. Big Babies! - Right whales calves at birth are estimated to weigh about 2400 pounds and are commonly more than 13 feet long.

  3. Maternal Fasting - Right whale mothers essentially fast for four months while they are at the calving grounds and on the migration each way. Once out of New England waters, their preferred food of animal plankton is too low in density to make feeding worthwhile.

  4. Have a Baby, Lose 10,000 Pounds – Even though mothers do not have the opportunity to eat in the birthing waters, calves are still hungry. Females convert body fat in to mother’s milk, and a right whale calf can gain hundreds of pounds in a week. Right whale mothers are literally transferring tons of body weight to their babies. Over the course of a year of nursing, right whale mothers can lose 10 - 30% of their average 50 ton weight or anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 pounds.
Why have right whale mothers been able to have so many babies in recent times?

Philip Hamilton, a senior whale scientist (at the New England Aquarium) said, “Everything points to the fact that the whales are in good condition physically. Many mothers are giving birth every three years which is ideal, and many young females are growing fast enough to become first time mothers at younger ages. The availability of food is probably the key factor.” Right whales primarily feed on krill-like animal plankton called copepods in New England and eastern Canadian waters.

For decades, North Atlantic right whales have remained among the most endangered whales in the world due in part to their very low reproductive rates. The entire population numbers less than 400 and in 2000 only a single calf was born. However, the recently concluded 2009 calving season saw a record 39 baby right whales born off the Florida and Georgia coasts. The old record of 31 was beaten by more than 25%!

This year’s baby boom is to be celebrated, but North Atlantic right whales still have a very long road to recovery. New England Aquarium whale scientists in Boston have been studying right whales and working toward their protection for more than 30 years.