A North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear. Photo courtesy the NOAA Photo Library.
My personal hygiene habits cost me a golden opportunity to get a long-desired look at one of the rarest whales on Earth – but my loss is the whales’ gain, so I don’t mind.
After showering and shaving one morning a few weeks ago at my vacation home on a north Florida beach, I glanced at Facebook to find an excited post from a neighbor. At 9 a.m. the neighbor had spotted a female North Atlantic right whale and her calf a short distance off the beach, just five houses down from mine. It was 9:52 a.m. when I saw her post.
I quickly grabbed some binoculars and scrambled to my upstairs deck for a better view. That perch afforded me a vista extending five miles out from shore, and a mile or more to each side. I scanned for the distinctive v-shaped blows that a right whale makes, or for a large black back with no dorsal fin, another characteristic of these marine mammals.
I saw nothing but birds and, after a long inspection, a couple of dolphins. Dolphins are nice to see, like deer in a northern backyard (when they’re not eating your shrubbery). But dolphin and deer sightings are about equally ho-hum events when you are used to them.
The Southeast coast from about Charleston, South Carolina to Cape Canaveral, Florida is the only known calving ground for the critically endangered right whales, now thought to number only a little over 400. Pregnant females, occasionally accompanied by juveniles, migrate here each winter to give birth. By March, with the strengthening spring sun and warming water, they begin the long journey north to their springtime feeding grounds in New England and summer ranges in Canada.
But three years ago there were only five births. That spring was followed by a devastating summer in which 17 right whales died, mainly from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The following season, no right whales at all were sighted in the Southeast, nor were any calves discovered later. It was starting to look as if I might never have a chance to see one of these behemoths in my Florida backyard.
Last year brought a bit of a recovery with seven births, but more mortality followed with 12 deaths in the north. This year we have had several pieces of welcome news, though partly offset by more unfortunate developments.
The good news begins with reports of 10 live births this year in the Southeast, according to CBC News in Canada. One mother and calf pair even took a sightseeing vacation to the gentle, warmer waters off Miami Beach. Such southern sojourns are not unknown, but are uncommon. The whales’ winter range typically ends a good 150 miles farther north. So I have no complaints about my whale-watching near-miss, since it is a result of the whales’ comparatively robust class of 2020.
The CBC also reported that the Canadian government is implementing new conservation rules in the country’s Atlantic provinces to protect the summering whales, which in recent years have moved northward from the Bay of Fundy into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fishing seasons will be adjusted and fishing areas closed entirely when whales are present; speed limits will be lowered for ships in certain areas; and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will test new ropeless fishing gear. Ship strikes and rope entanglements are the major causes of right whale mortality, so the new rules are aimed squarely at the whales’ biggest threats. We’ll have to wait to see whether these measures succeed.
More immediately, the good news was tempered earlier in the season when one of the calves was spotted with severe injuries from a propeller strike while swimming with its mother off the coast of Georgia. Neither mother nor calf has now been reported in several weeks. The calf’s ability to survive the wounds was very much in question, and it may have been lost.
Last week an emaciated adult female was found near Nantucket with a buoy caught in its mouth, Boston public radio station WBUR reported. That whale, named Dragon by researchers, is 19 years old and has calved three times, albeit not since 2016. Losing a fertile animal her age is another blow to the species.
It remains to be seen if the whales, with a population of breeding females numbering perhaps less than 100, can sustain this year’s more vigorous reproductive pace. Perhaps better feeding condition up north are producing stronger adults who can reproduce more efficiently. However, some researchers believe this year’s traffic in the whale nursery was the result of whales taking longer intervals to get pregnant, resulting in something of a short-term traffic jam in the neonatal unit that will soon reverse.
I will keep an eye out for those whales every winter. I’ll probably keep reporting on what I see – or don’t see – in this space from time to time. It isn’t easy to maintain a long-term relationship with a party you have never even seen, but these whales need all the friends they can get. I am not about to give up on them.