CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — Clearwater Marine Aquarium researchers announced they sighted first North Atlantic right whale mom and calf pair of the 2022-2023 season.

The pair was spotted off the coast of St. Catherines Sound, Georgia on Dec. 7 when the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI) teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for an aerial survey.

Coastal areas near northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are designated Critical Habitat Areas to help protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Researchers estimate there are less than 350 whales left in the wild, with only about 100 females capable of breeding.

Medusa and her calf, spotted Dec. 7. (Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #20556)

According to NOAA Fisheries, commercial whalers had driven the species to near-extinction by the 1890s. Dr. James Powell, President and Executive Director of CMARI, said the species was steadily recovering up until 2010, when the population began to decline. It never reached pre-whaling numbers.

Dr. Powell said the whales face threats from discarded fishing gear and other debris, as well as collisions with vessels, and a slow reproduction rate. That’s why last week’s sighting is important.

NOAA said females should be having calves every three years, but stress caused by entanglement, food scarcity and other factors is believed to cause them to reproduce less often – closer to every six to 10 years.

CMARI said the Dec. 7 sighting marks the seventh documented calf for mother “Medusa”, who is estimated to be about 42 years old. Researchers predict the massive mammals can live up to 70 years or longer.

Archipelago and her calf, spotted Dec. 8. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit #20556)

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources announced the second calf of the season was spotted the next day. 20-year-old mom “Archipelago” was sighted with her third documented calf near Little St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Wildlife officials ask boaters to report right whale sightings immediately to 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or to the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Ch. 16.