Commentary: Witness to Recovery

The New England Aquarium has been counting its successes—from a witnessed whale birth to stricter shipping rules

Right whales are identified by the callosities—or rough patches of white skin—on their heads.
© New England Aquarium

It takes a long time to get to know a whale. Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the New England Aquarium's right whale research team, has been spending more than two months a year studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Maine for the past 24 years. The boat the researchers take out each day from early August to September in the Bay is the same one they've used for the past 29 years. During those months, the Aquarium research team sets up shop at a field station in Lubec, Maine—members rise at 4:30 a.m. to follow the right whales, who travel there each year to mate and to eat.

"There's a lot of current [in the Bay]," says Brown. "The tidal gyre serves to concentrate the plankton…and the right whales are grazers who would rather go to one big grocery store. It's more efficient." And whale mothers are often there with young calves in tow, where the sheltered Bay offers them protection.

Where Whales are Born

With the start of December, the researchers have taken to the sky, to track the whale population as it migrates to Florida, where whales give birth in high-traffic shipping areas. Researchers sit in a small, two-seater plane and keep constant watch over the waters, tracking movements via a GPS and then circling in for pictures and closer observation. They are on the lookout for ship strikes in particular—major shipping channels converge with whale birthing areas off the Southeast U.S. coast—bringing everything from naval ships to nuclear submarines to casino boats in conflict with the endangered animals. There are less than 400 North Atlantic right whales alive today, and a new calf is a celebratory event. Just one calf was born in 2001, according to Brown, and 31 in 2002. Since 2002, she says, they've averaged over 20 calves a year. They don't know why whale births are increasing, but she says the numbers are encouraging. "We now feel like we're monitoring the recovery, and not the demise," Brown says.

Most recently, New England Aquarium researchers were witness to an extraordinary event—a live whale birth, the first right whale birth ever witnessed, spotted as they were flying 1,000 feet overhead. Monica Zani, one of the researchers and witnesses, says in an online interview how she thought for some time, with the evident thrashing and blood, that the mother whale was hurt. "Then," she says, "We saw the calf on her back."

Researcher Monica Zani on an aerial whale-tracking mission, witness to the first observed right whale birth.
© New England Aquarium

Slowing the Ships

Researchers use the particular callosities—or rough patches of white skin on each whale's head—as a means of identifying them throughout their lives. This most recent birth was by a mother whale they had named "Catspaw," and this was the fourth calf they knew belonged to her. As they follow the whales, collecting poop samples and taking photographs, researchers are also documenting the scarring on the whales, most due to entanglement from fishing gear. "75% of the whales have scars," says Brown. "Another 20% are scarred a second time." And because they are such large animals—up to 55 feet long and 80 tons—and swim slowly near the water's surface, they are uniquely prone to ship strikes, too. Since 2001, 12 right whales have been killed off the Atlantic coast when struck by ships.

While Canada has made whale protection a priority in lowering speeds in shipping lanes, the U.S. has been slow to act. This Tuesday, that will change. On December 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is mandating that ships slow down to 10 knots within 20 miles of East Coast ports during the season when whales are migrating to and from their Southeast calving grounds—that means regulating ship speeds from Maine to Florida. It's something that Brown has said has "been in the works for a long time."

Amy Knowlton, another member of the Aquarium's right whale research team said in a release, "To think that right whales will be able to migrate along the coast and avoid the now slow moving, oncoming ships that they come across routinely gives me tremendous hope that we are one step closer to giving this species a chance of avoiding extinction."

Brita Belli is the editor of E.

CONTACT: New England Aquarium; Right Whale Aerial Survey Blog.