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Rare Drone video shows critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

May 10, 2021


During a joint research trip on February 28 in Cape Cod Bay, Mass., WHOI whale trauma specialist Michael Moore, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, and scientists from New England Aquarium, witnessed a remarkable biological event: North Atlantic right whales in a surface active group, also known as a SAG.

SAGs involve close interactions between groups of right whales that may include playful, reproductive, and vocal behavior. The researchers flew drones to measure their body condition and unexpectedly saw what appeared to be whales hugging with their flippers, technically described as “belly to belly”; perhaps showing affection and attempts at mating.  The aerial perspective of these behaviors has rarely, if ever, been captured..

Most recent news about right whales has focused on trauma from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear. North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with approximately 360 individuals left on the planet.  This footage, however, gave researchers a unique view of the lives of these incredible animals; spending gentle, quiet time together, perhaps making new right whales. The whales were also seen skim feeding on plankton, and nursing calves, possibly conceived in SAGs more than a year ago.  There are less than 100 females capable of raising new calves in the entire species.

This remarkable event was full of hope and wonder, and serves as a reminder of the urgent need to reduce and mitigate the trauma that these animals routinely face so they can thrive and recover.

As Michael Moore told National Geographic Magazine, “Having a ringside seat on their private time..had a heartbeat of hope.”

Learn more about WHOI’s work with North Atlantic right whales.