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CMAST Scientists and Partners Respond to Right Whale Calf Mortality in Morehead City

Dr. Craig Harms is pictured during the recovery of the right whale at the Morehead City Port
Dr. Harms is pictured during the recovery of the right whale at the Morehead City Port

A North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) calf was reported alive on 3 January 2023

between Radio Island and the Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve at approximately

0800h. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI) aerial team spotted the

whale near the Morehead City Port at about 1000h and alerted K. Rittmaster (Bonehenge) who

was in a boat in the vicinity. CMARI and K. Rittmaster photographed the whale from the air and

from the water. With no sign of the mother throughout all of the searching, the outcome for

this young calf was bound to be dire, no matter where it ended up.

V. Thayer (NC DMF and CMAST) notified B. Mase (NOAA), W. McLellan (UNCW), C. Harms (NCState), US Coast Guard, and NCDMF Marine Patrol. The USCG issued a notice to mariners in the area, and the NCDMF said they could respond in the afternoon. Duke University Marine

Laboratory contacted V. Thayer and sent a boat to the Morehead City Port. V. Thayer received a video from a charter boat captain that showed the whale under the Morehead City Pier

apparently trapped and struggling between narrowly spaced, oyster-covered pilings and the

bulkhead at around 1200h noon. CMARI, K. Rittmaster continued searching by boat for an hour

or so, and C. Harms searched under the Morehead City Pier by kayak while V. Thayer searched

the area with TowBoat US in their boat, and NC DMF MP searched the rest of the afternoon


K. Rittmaster searched by boat with CMARI Wednesday. V. Thayer received blueprints of the

Morehead City Port Pier and contacted GeoDynamics. GeoDynamics conducted multibeam and side-scan sonar on Thursday. K. Rittmaster searched by boat and CMARI conducted an aerial survey Thursday. V. Thayer contacted Orion, divers who were working on the Morehead City Pier bulkhead and alerted them to the possibility of a dead whale in the vicinity. NOAA SERO recommended we stand by on Friday, because all options were exhausted.

On Saturday 7 January at 1400h, B. Gupton and Z. Nelson (NCDMF MP) received a call from a

fisherman who reported a dead whale floating at the surface under the Morehead City Pier. K.

Rittmaster went by boat and C. Harms and V. Thayer asked NC DMF MP B. Gupton and Z.

Nelson to pick them up and take them to the dead whale.

The whale was stuck among pilings configured in a V-shape that made forward movement

impossible and flared stiff pectoral fins prevented movement in reverse. Dr. Harms said the

whale was “trapped like a fish in a gill net.” “C. Harms did a great job of kayaking under the pier to secure the whale's pectoral fins,” said Thayer. He then worked by kayak with the NC DMF Marine Patrol, V. Thayer and K. Rittmaster, to dislodge the whale. The NC DMF MP Officers Gupton and Nelson then towed the whale to Ft. Macon State Park R. Newman and B. Fleming got the whale ashore with assistance from K. Rittmaster, C. Harms, and V. Thayer.

On Sunday morning at 0900h, the necropsy team met at Ft. Macon and conducted the post-

mortem examination. Harms said, “The NC marine mammal stranding response groups and

supporting agencies like DMF and state parks, coordinated by V. Thayer did an outstanding job responding to this event and working up the postmortem examination.” The necropsy team included veterinarians from NC State CMAST: C. Harms (lead Veterinarian), E. Christiansen (NC Aquariums and CMAST), N. Dannemiller (NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, CMAST Aquatic Resident) and V. Thayer, (NC Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator, Division of Marine Fisheries and NC State University). The necropsy team lead was W. McLellan from UNCW. D. Pabst (UNCW), other researchers and students from UNCW, Virginia Aquarium (VAQS), NC Maritime Museum/Bonehenge Whale Center, Duke University Marine Lab, Marine Mammal Commission, CMARI, NC DMF Marine Patrol, and Fort Macon State Park rangers assisted with the necropsy.

According to NOAA, “This calf will be added as the 93rd whale to the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event that the species has experienced since 2017.” Another recently reported injured right whale was an entangled four-year-old female off of Rodanthe, North Carolina.

The response and necropsy were conducted under authorization of a NMFS

MMPA/ESA Permit (#24359).  If you come across a stranded or injured marine mammal, please report it to the NC Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (252) 241-5119.