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For Whales, A Winter Of Excitement And Hope

sign on dock reading 'Help North Atlantic Right Whales' with an illustration of a right whale.
photo by Wikimedia Commons user DrStew82, licensed under CC BY-SA

Excitement has at least temporarily displaced dread for nature lovers on the Southeast’s beaches, where the biggest crop of baby whales in years is making quite a splash.

At least 14 North Atlantic right whale calves have been spotted this winter along the shoreline from the Carolinas to northern Florida, where females of the critically endangered species go to give birth. Because the calving season extends into March, professional biologists and citizen-scientists are keeping their fingers crossed that more may be on the way. Some publicly hope for the total to reach 20.

Just a decade ago, a year with 20 new whales would have been unexceptional. From 2008 to 2011 the annual calf count ranged from 19 to 39. After a down year in 2012 – seven births – researchers logged another 20 in 2013.

But that level has not been reached since, and the remainder of the 2010s proved to be a devastating period for these whales. From a modern peak of close to 500 animals, the total population of the species is now estimated at only around 360 individuals, give or take a few newbies. This year’s 14 known calves matches the 2016 total, which was down from 17 the year before. In 2017, a mere five calves were born, and in 2018 none at all, as far as anyone knows.

That was a terribly dispiriting winter. Hundreds of people kept watch along the Atlantic beaches, where I have a part-time home, hoping to see the whales’ V-shaped blow or distinctive large black body, which lacks a dorsal fin. (That lack of a fin and a very different flipper shape make it easy to distinguish the right whales from the humpbacks that sometimes swim through our nearshore waters.)

Day after day in that winter, the watchers watchfully watched. They saw nothing but sea birds and dolphins. It followed 2017’s calamitous summer, in which a total of at least 17 whales were found dead, most of them in Canadian waters where they feed. It proved to be the start of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has termed an “unusual mortality event,” in which a total of 46 whales are known or presumed to have died. That took out about 10% of the total species population over a four-year period. As has been the case for years, the leading known causes of death were propeller wounds from marine vessels and entanglement in fishing gear.

As spring arrived and the whales, if any were out there, returned to their northern range, some of us wondered if we had just glimpsed a whaleless future. Perhaps we had. But at least it turned out that the future had not quite arrived just yet.

The calving seasons that followed 2018’s shutout brought better news. There were seven known births in 2019 and 10 last year. One of last year’s births, and four of this year’s, were to first-time (as far as is known) mothers, a category that also had been in steep and worrisome decline.

Adding an element of mystery, another newborn (not counted among the 14 live births) was discovered dead, apparently of natural neonatal causes, on a North Carolina beach just at the start of this year’s season. Yet another calf mysteriously turned up, without its mother, on the far side of the Atlantic in the Canary Islands. Neither that calf nor any nearby adult has been seen since the initial sighting. While a lone calf has poor survival prospects, the unexpected and unexplained discovery hints that we may not be capturing all of the whales’ reproductive activity.

With these whales, unfortunately, bad news seems to quickly follow good. Two of last year’s calves never made it to their first birthday. (Absent human interactions, a North Atlantic right whale’s life span is about the same as a human’s.) One was killed by a ship strike even before it left the calving grounds; its mother has not been sighted since. The other, a young male which achieved quite a bit of celebrity as he wandered far afield with his mom, was involved in at least two encounters with boats. The second one killed him last spring off New Jersey, a few miles south of the New York harbor entrance.

Aerial surveys and better tracking are providing insight into the wide-ranging habits of these typically slow-moving whales. In recent summers, they have relocated their primary feeding area from the Bay of Fundy northward to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Several times in recent winters, noncalving individuals have wandered past the Florida calving grounds, through the Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico. In early spring they crowd into Cape Cod Bay; in winter numerous individuals can be found in waters south of Nantucket and east of Long Island.

In effect, the entire Eastern Seaboard is their range. These are waters crowded with private and commercial vessels and, in some areas, with considerable military traffic as well. They span two countries and are heavily fished. The slow-moving, surface-feeding whales are not likely to be in any particular place (with a few seasonal exceptions) at any given time, but we are discovering that they can turn up anywhere within their habitat at almost any time of year. In a population so small that the loss of even one is a step toward extinction, protecting the whales effectively is proving to be an even bigger task than it sounds.

A coalition of conservation groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last month, demanding that it expand the zones where its 10-knot (12 mph) speed limit applies, make voluntary slow-speed zones mandatory and extend the speed limit to vessels smaller than 65 feet. A similar, voluntary speed limit in Canada’s Cabot Strait – which the whales must traverse to reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence – came under scrutiny last year, after researchers found it was being widely ignored. Efforts are underway to develop, test and promote fishing gear without lines that can ensnare whales, or with lines that can be more easily broken to allow the entangled whales to shed them.

Will these efforts be big enough, and be implemented soon enough, to save these whales? I don’t know, but I hope so. I would like to think that my grandchildren can someday be part of that contingent that keeps an eye on the wintry waters off our Florida beach in hopes of seeing a V-shaped spout and a couple of finless black backs.

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