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Endangered Whale Tracked By Community As Scientists Socially Distance

A right whale emerging from the water.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Social distancing restrictions from coronavirus have actually led to a rare community effort: the tracking of an endangered species after a north Atlantic right whale mother and calf journeyed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The last time that happened was in 2006. It’s a totally different environment than what the endangered mammals are used to -- shallower and hotter -- so researchers were concerned about the whale becoming stranded.

“To give you an analogy, that's sort of like asking us to run a marathon in 100 degree temperature." said Barb Zoodsma, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "That's just hard to do. It's stressful, and so we had those concerns for these animals.” 

She said that when a sighting like this occurs, NOAA would have gone out to tag the whales, taken aerial photos and recruited local partners to get as much data as possible. But because of COVID-19, researchers have been relying on public sightings.

“It's kind of a double-edged sword,” she said. “On the one hand, we're getting these reports. The other side of the story: these animals were being approached fairly frequently, and their behavior was being changed.”

Zoodsma said researchers were witnessing on social media people not following guidelines, like staying 500 yards away from the whales.

She said, however, that they would not have this information without the public’s help.

As this social distancing continues to block the science community from hands-on research, Zoodsma said they will work on educating the public. You can call 1-877-WHALE-HELP (1-877-942-5343) to register your sighting.

This story has a happy ending though: the mother and calf have reportedly made back into cooler Atlantic waters, heading northeast to feed.

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