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Do the Right Thing

   There was a time when there were up to 200,000 right whales in the world.
   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 Brown.
    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.
    "The Bay 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.
   "Intuitively, 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 the vessels?"
   "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 again.
    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"
   "There's no hope she's still alive" says Hamilton. "It's fairly clear to us that she didn't make it."
    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.
    He was 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. "I'm ecstatic," 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 not.

Alan White is a reporter in the Fredericton bureau of the Telegraph Journal.

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