Once the right whale to hunt, Eubalaena glacialis is now beset by nets, ships and changing seas. We are losing a beautiful beast
As if to confound everyone, this past week Dr Charles ” Stormy ” Mayo and his team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported watching up to 150 right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Dr Mayo- who has been studying these animals for 40 years and has a scientist’s aversion to exaggeration- is stunned.
” It is amazing for such a rare and utterly odd being ,” he tells me. All the more astonishing since he knows this great gathering could be a final prosper. By 2040, the North Atlantic right whale may be gone. He hesitates, then uses the e-word: extinction.
How can such a huge mammal simply disappear within reach of the richest and most powerful nation on earth? Shifting food sources- due to climate change- are leading whales to areas where maritime industries are unused to them. In the past 12 months, 18 rights have died after ship ten-strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. With as few as 430 animals left, 100 of them breeding females in a reduced gene pool, the species is unsustainable.
The right whale may be the strangest animal in the ocean. Vast and rotund, its gigantic mouth is fringed with two-metre strips of baleen, once “harvested” by humans to furnish Venetian blinds and corset stays but used by the whale to strain its diet of rice-sized zooplankton from the sea.
These bizarre animals are not easily known or imagined. They live far longer than us- like its Arctic cousin, the bowhead, the right whale may reach 200, perhaps more. Individuals could be older than constitutional America. They exist beyond us in time, dimension and experience. If we lose the right whale, we lose part of our planet’s biological history.
If any whale were to be so foolish as to claim nationality, the North Atlantic right whale would be American, spending all its life in US or Canadian waters. Its modern moniker, the urban whale, provokes its habit of foraging close to shore. Its historic name speaks to its fate. Being a surface-feeder, so near to land, made it vulnerable to humans. And when it was killed, its belt of blubber ensured that it floated conveniently. The right whale was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
By 1935, with as few as 60 breeding individuals left, the situation was so dire that the right whale became the first cetacean to be protected by law. But by the start of this century, the numbers seemed to recover. Shipping lanes were shifted and fishing industries took on board the whale’s protected status. It even got its own air exclusion zone.” Like a Hollywood star ,” as John Waters quipped to me.
For 18 years I’ve followed that tentative recovery in the water off Cape Cod. I’ve stumbled on to the winter beach to witness their fins and flukes tumbling so near the tide line I might have waded out to them. I’ve even watched them from my bed overlooking the bay. And on research cruises with the Center for Coastal Studies, special licence allowed us to approach close enough to see the whale lice( cyamids) crawling round their heads.
On one memorable trip-up in April 2015, scientist Christy Hudak and her squad spotted 80 animals- almost 20% of the population. It was like watching dinosaurs, but such is the sensitivity of the center’s work that I cannot show you the dozens of photographs I took that day.