Do the Right
There was a time when there were up to 200,000 right whales in
They were slow swimmers and often grazed for
copepods, a zooplankton, at or near the surface. When they were killed they
often floated, enabling whalers to harvest up to 80 barrels of oil for fuel and
soap and 450 kilograms of baleen - the long hair like features it uses to
strain millions of rice-sized plankton from millions of gallons of seawater -
for umbrellas and corsets.
That was back in the 16th
century. It was because of those characteristics that the whales were called
right whales, for they were the "right whale" to hunt.
And hunted they were.
By the early
16th century, European whalers had largely purged the eastern North Atlantic of
the right whale, so they sailed west to Canada. Between 1530 and 1610 up to
40,000 right whales were slaughtered off Newfoundland and the commercial hunt
ended soon thereafter. The whalers simply couldn't find right whales anymore.
By 1750, the North Atlantic right whale was thought to be extinct.
But a few
survived. Through DNA sampling, scientists believe there are only five
unrelated female family lines running through today's population of 300.
It is for the same reason that the whales were easy prey for
whalers that they are now endangered by passing ships. They eat and sleep at or
near the surface, as well as from "surface active groups" - namely group sex,
where one female mates with a succession of suitors.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have recorded the deaths of 41 right whales
and were able to determine a cause of death in 18 of those cases.
Ships strikes killed 16 of those 18, with the other two
dying after getting entangled in fishing gear. Seven percent of all right
whales have propeller scars.
"Clearly, if we're going
to try and give this a population the best chance to increase and reduce the
effects of human-related mortality, shipping is the first place to look." says
The reason the scientists are looking first at
the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy is because that is where the greatest
concentration of whales is located in the closest proximity to shipping lanes.
There is heavier shipping traffic in the waters off Florida and Georgia where
mothers have their calves in December and January, so the danger there is also
great. Just as is the case in Grand Manan, there have been three known
ship-strike deaths in the waters off Boston.
of Fundy is one of the few places I think we can make quite a difference with a
small change ," says Hamilton.
Scientists haven't been
able to determine whether the whales are able to detect ships bearing down on
them and therefore don't know whether having ships slow their speed would
decrease or increase the danger to whales.
it sort of makes sense that if you slow a vessel down, it will give a whale
more time to react," says Brown. "What we don't know is can these whales detect
"Intuitively, I think that slowing the
vessel down may give a whale a chance to get out of the way. On the other hand,
it increases the amount of time a vessel is in the area."
One thing scientists do know is that the whales are oblivious
to everything around them during their frequent, frenzied mating sessions on
the surface. Two years ago it the bay, scientists recorded 44 whales in one
such group. They shudder at the thought of a large ship bearing down on a large
mating group in a fog or under cover of darkness, or not sighting the group in
time to steer the massive ship around it.
"When they get
together in surface active groups of 30 or 40 whales in a ball, I'm horrified
to think what a freighter, going 20 knots right through that , would do." says
Hamilton. "It could take out a sixth of the population."
The last right whale to escape a
harpoon is still unaccounted for.
The last sighting of
No. 1045 was that instance in 1995 off Georges Banks with a huge flab of flesh
hanging off her head. Although it's only been two years and that whale was
spotted only sporadically over the years, scientists don't expect to see her
She may have escaped he nemesis of another era,
but she couldn't escape the modern-day scourge of the right whales. A ship
strike killed No. 1045. In 2001, when she hasn't been seen for six years,
she'll be categorized as "presumed dead"
hope she's still alive" says Hamilton. "It's fairly clear to us that she didn't
Shackleton's story has a happier ending.
The right whale that took the wrong turn survived his
misadventures up the Delaware River and his encounter with a tugboat, and
eventually made his way to the Bay of Fundy.
photographed in early August, with propeller scars almost a metre in length
across his back. After independent analysis of his callosities pattern by three
experts, the sighting of Shackleton was confirmed just 10 days ago.
says Hamilton. "That whale was so lost up that river."
"He was a tough little whale that had gone through so many
hardships and it was great to see that he had made it."
Whether Shackleton's luck continues to hold out remains to
been seen. As far as is known, he's still somewhere in the Bay of Fundy.
Maybe he's safely away from the shipping lanes. Maybe he's
Alan White is a reporter in the
Fredericton bureau of the Telegraph Journal.