A rare North Atlantic right whale took her baby on an unusual trip Monday: through the Sebastian Inlet into the mouth of the Indian River Lagoon.
The whales, among just 500 remaining, were spotted in the inlet Monday morning. Researchers aren’t quite sure why they entered the inlet in Brevard County more than 150 miles north of Miami. But once under the bridge, a low tide and the unfamiliar structure of the bridge seemed to confuse the whales, who spent the night inside the inlet.
It took 15 agonizing tries, but the mother eventually coaxed her baby back out to open sea Tuesday afternoon.
Researchers believe the calf is the first for the female, which they have dubbed Clipper for a missing section of her right fluke.
“She kept going after her calf. She was a good first-time mom,” said Blair Mase, who monitors strandings in the region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said researchers have been following Clipper since 2004.
North Atlantic right whales migrate every year from Canada and Maine beginning in November to begin having their babies in warmer waters between North Carolina and Florida. They typically stay north of Sebastian and only rarely make their way to Miami — although some stragglers have been known to make their way around the coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, Mase said.
The whales were among the first species added to the Endangered Species List and in 1994 numbered as low as 300. Last month, NOAA expanded the whale’s critical habitat for the first time, based on information collected over three decades that indicated the whales wintered as far south as Sebastian Inlet.
State wildlife officers first spotted the whales in the inlet about 8:30 a.m. Monday, said Frank McCloy, a spokesman for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, and sent two boats to make sure curious onlookers kept their distance. State wildlife officers who conduct aerial surveys during calving system also circled overhead.
While the whales spent much of the night “boxing” or swimming back and forth in the inlet, on Tuesday morning they turned east and started heading back out the inlet. However, each time they approached a shadow cast by the bridge, the baby turned back, Mase said. A very strong current sweeping under the bridge didn’t help matters, she said.
“The current was so strong . . . they drifted backwards and backwards,” Mase said.
All that circling gave researchers a good look at the whales — both appeared healthy. Eventually they made it through and headed back out to sea and north. While they aren’t certain what made navigating the bridge tricky, they’ve seen the same thing happen with young dolphins and suspect it has something to do with the shadow cast by the bridge.
“It’s kind of a perceived barrier,” she said. “The shadows are not something they’re used to in the open ocean.”