Female right whale #1950, seen here in January 2024 with her calf in Cumberland Island, GA, has just been found dead off the Virginia coast. Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919.

Right Whale Mother Found Dead Without Calf Off Virginia Coast

Editor’s Note: This story contains an image and some details regarding the most recent right whale death that some may find disturbing. Please view at your discretion.

The struggling North Atlantic right whale population has taken another hit in the mid-Atlantic region: a female whale, who had given birth to a calf in recent months, has been found dead off the coast of Virginia.

Right whale #1950, who researchers have been following since 1989, was found floating about 50 miles east of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. She was a mom from the 2024 calving season, having given birth this winter. It was her sixth documented calf, according to NOAA Fisheries. The calf would still have been nursing, dependent on its mother. It was not found anywhere near its mothers floating carcass.

UPDATE: NOAA Fisheries has released the findings of its necropsy. Here is the agency’s statement:

On April 2, 2024, experts conducted a necropsy (animal autopsy) on the adult female North Atlantic right whale #1950. Preliminary findings included catastrophic injuries with a dislocation of the whale’s spine and fractures to all vertebrae in the lower back. These findings are consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel strike prior to death. Additional histological and diagnostic testing of samples is pending. NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating this incident. 

Female right whale #1950 had been scavenged by sharks by the time her carcass was found off the Virginia coast. Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #24359.

On March 30, a company conducting Mid-Atlantic whale surveys for the Navy discovered the dead right whale and notified NOAA Fisheries. Its carcass had been scavenged by sharks, but marine biologists made the decision to bring the whale in tow back to land to conduct a necropsy (animal autopsy) on what is left of it.

A huge team of organizations worked together to identify, recover and tow the whale some 50 miles back to shore. NOAA Fisheries says wind, weather and the long distance from the coast caused logistical challenges. Nonprofits and agencies from five states and federal partners helped with the whale’s recovery and the necropsy.

Right whale #1950 was last spotted with her calf, February 16, 2024 off Amelia Island, Florida. Based on how long NOAA Fisheries had been tracking her, the mother was at least 35 years old, but could have been older. Fisheries scientists assume the calf will likely not survive without its mother.

Number 1950 is the 40th North Atlantic Right Whale to die since an Unusual Mortality Event went into effect for the species in 2017.

As always, NOAA Fisheries reminds anyone who sees an injured or stranded whale (dead or alive) to stay at least 500 yards away, and report it to the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline is (866) 755-6622 and the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline is (877) WHALE-HELP or (877) 942-5343). 

Whale conservation groups responded quickly to the sad news. Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana, said in a statement, “There are now at least seven dead North Atlantic right whales in just three short months. The death of right whale #1950 is just the latest tragedy facing this species as it swims on the edge of extinction along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. While we wait for the necropsy results, we also know it will likely have deadly consequences for the mother’s newborn calf, born just this winter, which cannot survive on its own.”