Right Time for the Right Whale?

Carl Safina
Holiday 2010

A mile down the shoreline I see what looks like a trawler wrecked on the beach.

But it’s not a boat; it’s a whale.

And up close, its massive contours seem surreal. Under the wide sky and with the backdrop of the sea whence it has come, it is both in and out of its element, natural and unnatural; its black skin is blotched with pink abrasions from getting pushed aground, the huge pleats of its distensible throat looking like the planks of a wooden vessel. Its mouth bites a bulldozer’s wedge of beach sandwich. In life, this Jonah-gulping throat ballooned like a pelican’s pouch, engulfing a swimming pool of ocean and the tiny food therein. Then that balloon would contract while its mother tongue strained water through the mouth-rimming brush of baleen, concentrating entrapped hordes of plankton into a satisfying swallow.

Its blowholes are slammed shut like deck hatches. The sun paints a lifelike highlight onto its open eye. Blood and fluid ooze from a wound near the base of its pectoral fin, as though the percolating corpse is just another leaking tanker. Whales were once civilization’s chief source of oil, the world’s living wells, and we pumped the sea nearly dry of them. We’ve learned little of whales and nothing of oil. The U.S. burns over 20 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China and India – combined. The resulting climate change has consequences for plankton and, therefore, for whales that – unlike this one – must face an uncertain future.

This whale’s got a gash near its eye and a bruise across its back. All things die. But when a biologist arrives, she examines the oozing bruises and pronounces trauma: a ship has done this. This makes its death less acceptable. I stand encountering this ancient being simply because the ancient being encountered us first, and tragically.

Ship strikes have killed fully half of North Atlantic Right Whales whose deaths were recorded over the last 20 years. Formerly considered the “right” kind of whales because they were slow and floated when killed, Rights have been wronged by people in every way from harpoons to fishing gear to chemicals to climate change.

More than 75 percent of North Atlantic Right Whales carry scars from entangling fishing nets or traplines. Those are the survivors. “The actual number of deaths resulting from human activities is unknown,” one science team wrote, adding it’s “certainly higher than the observed number.”

Demolished first by whaling, just 350 or so Balaena glacialis swim the whole North Atlantic. Most migrate along the U.S. East Coast; the Europe to West Africa population appears extinguished. North Atlantic Rights are now so few that the addition or subtraction of just two or three breeding females determines whether they increase or decline. (Two other Right Whale species exist. North Pacific Rights, Balaena japonica, were abundant off Alaska until whalers nearly wiped their slate. The Southern Right, Balaena australis, has increased to about 7,500 living off South America, South Africa and Australia. But mysterious mortality in recent years has killed hundreds of young calves off Patagonia.)

For food, North Atlantic Right Whales depend heavily on one species of copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, which swarm at certain places and times. The size of a rice grain, these oil-rich creatures are so tiny that Right Whales compete with herring, sand eels and mackerel for the same food. Swimming slowly with mouth open, filtering copepods from the sea with that brushy baleen, one Right Whale can consume 2.6 billion C. finmarchicus daily.

C. finmarchicus is so sensitive to water temperature and salinity that as conditions change, their populations rise or fall tenfold. Scientists believe that climate changes won’t be favorable for this copepod. Melting Arctic ice during the 1990s sent fresher, colder water into the Gulf of Maine, creating conditions unfavorable to C. finmarchicus. Right Whale birth rates track copepod fortunes, with just one calf born in 2000, compared to three dozen during some other years.

What will happen? Canada says, “Recovery of the North Atlantic Right Whale will require significant international coordination and cooperation.” Which humans are often bad at. Meanwhile, the oil eruption has dimmed the tide of life in the Gulf of Mexico and spreads toward the Right Whales’ winter grounds. And Iceland, Norway and Japan insist, more whales must be killed.

Yet surprising progress has recently intruded. Shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy have been altered to reduce shipstrike probability there by about 90 percent. Because analyses show that collisions with ships traveling at 15 knots are almost always fatal, but half of whales struck at under 12 knots survive, the U.S. established 10-knot ship-speed zones around eight East Coast port cities. A few- mile northward shift has moved ships coming into Boston out of a Right Whale feeding area, reducing collision risk by 60 percent. Plus, buoys there now listen for Right Whale calls, allowing managers to alert ship operators so they can slow down.

Hope? “There’s been a tremendous amount of good news,” says Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium. In 1900 there may have been as few as 50 North Atlantic Right Whales – far fewer than today. In 2009, North Atlantic Right Whales birthed a record 39 calves.

About the Author

Carl Safina brought ocean conservation into the environmental mainstream. Audubon magazine named him among the leading 100 conservationists of the 20th century, and he’s been profiled by the New York Times, Nightline and Bill Moyers. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, the children’s book Nina Delmar – The Great Whale Rescue and, upcoming in late 2010, The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. His awards include a Pew Fellowship, Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Prize, among others. He is the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute.