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Looking For Lost Whales

jumping right whale
photo by Nestor Galina

If a right whale placed its head on home plate at Yankee Stadium, its tail could stretch all the way to the pitcher’s mound.

Not that a right whale is likely to turn up at Yankee Stadium. First, you can’t invite one to share your luxury box. These whales are protected from human exploitation by multiple laws and treaties. Second, right whales have no known affinity for baseball in general, or for the Yankees in particular. Being plankton eaters, they are not even motivated by Marlins, Rays or other species of fish. But most of all, you can’t bring a right whale into Yankee Stadium because they weigh up to 200,000 pounds. The stadium’s freight elevator (with which I am familiar, though that is a story for another day) cannot handle the load.

You might figure anything as big as a right whale must be pretty hard to lose, especially since the population is the subject of intense scientific study. The ocean, however, is a really big place - big enough to make even a lot of right whales disappear.

My work brought me this week to Digby Neck, a ridge of land that extends southwest from the Nova Scotia fishing port of Digby. On one side, Digby Neck is separated from Nova Scotia’s “French shore” - home of much of the province’s Acadian population - by narrow, scenic St. Mary’s Bay. On the other side of Digby Neck lies the much larger Bay of Fundy, famously home to the world’s highest tides, and a critical summer feeding ground for the right whales.

Just about now, pregnant females and a few mothers with yearling calves are departing for a hazardous migration to the coastal waters of our Southeastern states. There, in shallow waters between Charleston, S.C. and Cape Canaveral, Fla., mothers will deliver and nurse their calves - sometimes within easy viewing distance from shore. Organized teams of whale watchers, including ordinary citizens and professional scientists, will identify every returning whale (there is an official catalog) and note every birth.

Nineteen mother-calf pairs were observed in the calving grounds last year, and in a highly unusual event, a 20th baby was observed with its mother in Cape Cod Bay far to the north, in a place normally used as a feeding area in the spring. An additional 21 right whales were spotted down south last winter, bringing the total for the region to 59. (I have looked for whales near our beach home in northeast Florida, but have yet to see one.) Add the pair that spent the winter near Cape Cod, and you have accounted for 61 right whales out of a population estimated to be someplace around 400 to 500 animals.

Where were the rest? Nobody really knows.

It takes about 12 to 13 months to make a baby right whale. Since the calves are born between November and March, the breeding season must be starting soon for calves that will be born in the winter of 2014-15. Right whales are believed to do their procreational duties in the cold, stormy waters off southern Nova Scotia. Groups of adult males congregate around a single female in “surface active groups,” or SAGs, in a proceeding that looks like it ought to be happening at the Playboy mansion. SAGs occur at other times of year and in other gender configurations, but no conception seems to take place then, since out-of-season births appear to be unknown.

Yet that still leaves a lot of whales, especially juveniles of both genders not yet of breeding age, unaccounted for. Their wintering grounds are a mystery.

In the spring, the new mothers and infant whales depart the Southeast. They make their way up the coast, moving slowly and near the surface, past most of the busiest shipping and fishing ports on the East Coast. With hunting banned since 1936, the two biggest human causes of right whale deaths are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. A lot of effort has recently gone into slowing and rerouting ships to keep them away from the whales.

Conventional wisdom holds that the whales return to their summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy and in Roseway Basin, not far to the south. This year, however, researchers from the New England Aquarium were hard pressed to find the whales, including the mothers and new babies they saw in the Southeast early in the year. They must be out there somewhere, though, like the other whales in the catalog, some of whom are not seen for years at a time.

The whales do not sign a guest register when they arrive at the Bay of Fundy, so it is possible that some are present but unseen. Still, these are big, slow, surface-loving creatures, and the bay is constantly traversed by ships of all sizes. Organized whale-watch tours keep a sharp eye for the right whales and numerous other species that summer in the bay. There is nowhere to hide. One right whale turned up this summer right outside the windows of the researchers’ home base, in the harbor at Lubec, Maine.

Some whales have been observed in recent years in waters beyond Nova Scotia, congregating in small groups near the mouth and in the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River. Historically, a few have been sighted near Newfoundland.

The waters farther north and east across the Atlantic are more difficult to survey, but researchers are trying. Intensive efforts near the southern tip of Greenland turned up a previously unknown right whale a few years ago, and scientists believe they have isolated the calls of several other whales in that region.

In 1999 one young male right whale crossed the Atlantic to the waters off Norway, then crossed back. Though they were once common in European waters, right whales were hunted to virtual extinction in that region long ago. It is not clear whether there is any full-time resident population on that side of the pond, though there have been a few scattered sightings.

The right whales are barely hanging on. Their reproduction rate is low enough, and their mortality rate is high enough, that the loss or preservation of just a few individuals a year might determine whether the species can survive. Besides ship collisions and entanglements, the whales may be threatened by constraints of food supply, accumulated pollutants and lack of genetic diversity.

In a few months, I will resume my watch for mothers and calves in the waters near my home, and I will continue to scan the scientific blogs for news about how the whales are doing. I am eager to see how the mystery of the lost whales is solved.

I’ll also ponder the question of what baseball team a right whale would follow, if a right whale followed baseball. Given their size, I suspect it will turn out to be the Giants.

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