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Slalom, a North Atlantic right whale with an impressive survival story, gives birth

A photograph of Slalom and her calf coming up for air. The blue=green water surrounds them.
CMARI And USACE Under NOAA Permit #20556-0
Slalom and her calf are spotted off the coast of South Carolina.

“Congratulations on your bundle of joy.” That’s what researchers at the New England Aquarium are saying to a North Atlantic right whale just spotted off the South Carolina coast with her sixth calf.

The 39-year-old mom named Slalom has at least four grand-offspring — making her a pillar of the surviving right whale population, which has shrunk down to just 336.

“So with six calves … and four grand calves, that's a huge contribution to this population. All female right whales can do this as long as we give them the opportunity,” said Philip Hamilton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium who helped identify the critically endangered whale through aerial photographs that revealed the distinctive calluses atop her head.

Normally, Hamilton said, a female right whale can give birth every three to four years, but given the stress of entanglements, boat collisions, and disrupted feeding habitats related to climate change, a decade regularly passes between calves.

It’s been 11 years since Slalom last gave birth.

“It's great that she's calving, but it’s just a reminder that this population is definitely struggling,” he said.

Slalom has lived through six entanglements and her offspring and grand-offspring have endured a combined 17 entanglements plus two collisions with ships. At least two of those grand-offspring, born to Slalom’s daughter Insignia, died within their first two years of life.

“So many of [their lives] are cut short from death by entanglement or ship strikes that you don't get to see these amazing life histories and family stories unfold,” Hamilton said. “So it's great that [Slalom] has been able to survive for 39 years. She should be able to survive for another 39 years if we don't interfere with her.”

Slalom and her calf have only been seen once so far, but they’ll likely make their way to Cape Cod waters by the spring.

A second calf was also spotted off the coast of Georgia with new mom Snow Cone, who, sadly, is currently entangled in rope, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This year, researchers hope to see as many as 30 calves born to help rebuild the population. During the 2021 North Atlantic right whale calving season, researchers identified 19 live calves. Only 22 births were observed during the previous four calving seasons combined.

“There's a lot of bad news with the right whale story,” Hamilton said. “Every whale that survives to [Slalom’s] age and is able to reproduce for a healthy time period gives me hope.”

Eve Zuckoff is WCAI's Report for America reporter, covering the human impacts of climate change.
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