Aquarium scientists identify North Atlantic right whale found dead off Georgia as a 1-year-old female

Deceased whale came from a large family, well known to researchers

Deceased right whale yearling
The yearling seen alive with her mother, “Pilgrim” (Catalog #4340), in Cape Cod Bay in April 2023. CREDIT: New England Aquarium/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, taken under NOAA permit #21371

BOSTON, MASS. (Feb. 15, 2024) – New England Aquarium scientists have identified a North Atlantic right whale found dead off Georgia earlier this week as a female yearling, the critically endangered species’ second lost female in just the last month.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was notified of the whale carcass off Savannah, GA, on Feb. 13. The right whale was relocated by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s aerial survey team on Feb. 14 about 20 miles offshore, and efforts are underway to tow it to shore in hopes of conducting a necropsy. The whale has been heavily scavenged by sharks, which could make the ability to tow it ashore and investigate the cause of death more challenging. The yearling had last been seen alive and healthy in the southeast U.S. two weeks ago.

Aquarium scientists in collaboration with researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission identified the whale as a 1-year-old female, first sighted off Florida in December 2022. She was the only calf of “Pilgrim” (Catalog #4340), a well-known right whale who has spent a lot of time in Massachusetts waters. “Pilgrim” and her calf were sighted several times in Cape Cod Bay in Spring 2023.

“In just over a two-week period, the North Atlantic right whale population has lost two young females. Their deaths, while heartbreaking in and of themselves, also represent the potential loss of dozens of new whales in the population. As this species struggles to recover, these deaths are significant,” said Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

The deceased yearling comes from a large family of right whales, numbering 30 relatives. Her mother, “Pilgrim,” has a unique origin story that led to her name. She was first seen with her own mother, “Wart” (Catalog #1140), not in the southeast calving grounds but near the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Cape Cod Bay in 2013. Researchers worried that a calf born in the cold northeast winter would struggle to survive, but Pilgrim defied the odds and became a first-time mother at the age of 10.

Collectively, this family of right whales has experienced at least 77 injuries from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. In 2021, one of the yearling’s cousins, a 1-month-old calf, was hit and killed by a sport fishing vessel off Florida.

“This family’s story highlights the depth of how much we know about these individuals and the magnitude of the threats that they are facing from human activities along our highly industrialized East Coast,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered large whale species in the world, with an estimated population of less than 360 individuals. There are just 70 reproductively active females estimated to be remaining. The yearling’s death is the latest in a series of tragedies involving the species this winter. In early January, a newborn right whale calf suffered a serious injury consistent with a vessel strike in the southeast U.S. Just a few weeks later, a 3-year-old female washed onto Martha’s Vineyard dead. According to NOAA, preliminary necropsy results of the whale showed chronic entanglement, with rope deeply embedded in the whale’s tail. The rope has since been linked to the Maine lobster or crab fishery. These losses emphasize the urgency of taking action to prevent the species’ extinction by reducing the risks of entanglements and vessel strikes.


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