Critically endangered whale calf found dead in devastating discovery

North Atlantic right whales are experiencing an ongoing "unusual mortality event."

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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A group of scientists gathered and processed samples from the deceased North Atlantic Right Whale calf found in the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

The news about North Atlantic right whales has been bad for years. The critically endangered marine mammals are suffering from ongoing population decline and hope has been hard to find. 

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries reported the sad discovery of a dead right whale calf on an island in the Cape Lookout National Seashore off the North Carolina coast. "The North Atlantic right whale calving season is off to a devastating start," the agency said.

The National Park Service found the calf last week. A team of specialists went in to investigate, conduct a necropsy and collect genetic samples that might help trace the mother. The North Atlantic right whale population is estimated to be less than 400. With so few whales left, scientists have gathered data and genetic information on most of the surviving whales. 

Humans are behind the right whale's dwindling numbers. Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements are the leading causes of death contributing to what NOAA calls an "unusual mortality event" that has been underway since 2017. The response team didn't find any signs of human interaction. The calf appears to have died during or right after birth.

The large whales were the subject of a study in 2019 that found the mothers use a form of quiet baby talk to communicate with their young without tipping off potential predators. The whales have been covered by the US Endangered Species Act -- which is meant to protect and conserve threatened species -- since 1970, but the animals are still in danger of extinction.

"Each new right whale calf brings so much hope for this critically endangered species," NOAA said, "and losses like this have a substantial impact on their recovery."