Do the Right
(There were once 200,000 right whales in
the world. Can we save the 300 that remain?)
By Alan White
for the New
a typical vacation outing. During a month-long holiday in Florida, the Levick
family set out with Capt. Roy Merritt on the Caliban for a fishing expedition.
About 10 minutes after clearing the breakwater off Fort Lauderdale, there was
much fuss aboard the Caliban. A mother right whale and her calf were surfacing
off the port bow.
Today, that's a cause for celebration,
an event that would set video cameras whirling and shutters clicking aboard
whale-watching boats filled with tourists.
It was exciting then, too. "It
was a wonderful sight, the mother coming up first, exhaling a cloud of moisture
which often reached us, and then followed by the smaller one," wrote John
Levick of his experience.
But that was where the
similarity to today ends, as this was a different time. It was 1935, two years
before laws were enacted to protect the most endangered of the world's large
whales, and the reaction aboard the Caliban to the two rare right whales was
one of confusion.
Picture on the left. Tail of a
right whale. (Sascha Glinka). Picture on the right. Scientist Moira Brown holds
the modified crossbow she uses to obtain plugs of skin from whales - from which
DNA samples can be extracted. (Emese Kazár)
"Get out my harpoon," someone yelled.
Where's my rifle?"
In a 1935 issue of what is now Motor Boat and Sailing
magazine, Levick told the story of the last slaughter of a North Atlantic right
whale, proving his tale - entitled "A Fish Story in Pictures" - with six
photographs taken during the baby whale's six-hour struggle for life.
"At last, after patient pursuit, we managed to maneuver
right over the smaller one and Roy let her have it. The iron was fast and
z-z-z- went the rope, 400 feet [120 metres] of it with a water tight keg on the
" They followed the harpooned calf for an
hour and other boats joined the pursuit, resulting in the harpoon's rope being
cut by a propeller. "The chase started in earnest and it was anybody's whale,
now," wrote Levick.
The Caliban and another boat each
got another harpoon in the calf.
"From then on, it was
just a matter of time."
All this time, the mother whale
was nearby trying to rescue her young. "Occasionally, she charged in, trying to
free her young from the ropes by entangling them with her tail. Once she
succeeded and it looked for a while as if they were going to get away again.
They slipped off, though, and then it was all up for Mr. Whale as he was pretty
well played out."
It took three boats to tow the
32-foot (9.6 metre) whale carcass back to port, hauling it by a rope tied
around its tail.
"We came up to the city dock in grand
style, dress-ship, horns blowing, bells clanging and the whole town 'to greet
us, including the local three-piece band."
band played on, the mother right whale quietly slipped back to sea, her calf no
longer at her side.
Scientists know who that mother is.
They can identify her, as they can all right whales, by the distinctive patches
of roughened skin, known as callosities, that grow on her head.
She is catalogued as No. 1045 and was spotted in 1959, 1980,
1985 and 1992. The last sighting of her was in 1995 off Georges Bank near
"There was a gash in her head " says
Philip Hamilton, the project leader for the New England Aquarium's right whale
field research station in Lubec, Me.
That mother whale,
now 70 or more years old, had been sliced by a ship's propeller. "The cut went
down to the bone and it was cut in such a way that, basically, a piece of flesh
about the size of two people was being held off away from the side of her head
as she swam forward.
"Right whale No.1045 hasn't been