We landed at Puerto Madryn, inside the protected waters of Peninsula Valdez. This is Patagonia. Dry, windswept, scrubby. We’ve seen the strange little mammals called Maras that look like a cross between small antelope and rabbits—but are rodents. And Guanacos, one of the llama-like South American members of the camel family. Then on to the main events: First, Southern Right Whales and their recently born calves.
Formerly considered the “right” kind of whales because they were slow, and floated when killed, Rights have been wronged in just about every way people can muster, by everything from harpoons to fishing gear to chemicals to climate changes. When a ship strikes a whale, chances are 50/50 that it has hit a Right Whale. More than 75% of North Atlantic Right Whales carry scars from entanglement with fishing nets or trap-lines. And those are the survivors.
The Southern Right Whale (Balaena australis) has increased to about 7,500 in populations off South America, South Africa, and Australia. (Sadly, within the last decade a mysterious source of mortality killed hundreds of young calves in their population off Patagonia.) Two other Right Whale species ply the seas. North Pacific Right Whales Balaena japonica were abundant summer residents in the south-eastern Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska until whalers slaughtered them to near-extinction; they are seldom seen. Just 350 or so North Atlantic Right Whales (Balaena glacialis) swim in the whole North Atlantic Ocean. They spend most of the year migrating up and down the U.S. East Coast. Those that swam between Europe and West Africa are now so vanishingly rare they may have already blinked out.
The legacy of hunting includes not just low numbers but genetic diversity among the lowest identified in a large mammal, making chances for population growth dicey. North Atlantic Right Whales are now so few that whether they increase or decline depends on the addition or subtraction of just two or three breeding females to or from the population.
For food, North Atlantic Right Whales depend most heavily on one species of copepod, Calanus finmarchicus. The size of a grain of rice, these oil-rich creatures are so tiny that Right Whales actually compete for the same food eaten by herring, sandeels, and mackerel. They form dense swarms in certain places and certain times. Swimming slowly with their mouths open, filtering the copepods from the sea with the brushy baleen hanging from its upper jaw, one Right Whale can consume 2.6 billion Calanus finmarchicus daily.
Calanus finmarchicus is so sensitive to changes in water temperature and salinity that their populations rise or fall by a factor of ten as conditions change. Scientists are concerned that coming climate changes won’t be favorable. As arctic ice melting accelerated during the 1990’s, fresher, colder water reached the Gulf of Maine, creating conditions unfavorable for C. finmarchicus. Balaena glacialis is so sensitive to changes in Calanus finmarchicus numbers that Right Whale births tracks copepod fortunes, with annual births in the last 20 years ranging from just one calf to nearly three dozen.
The Canadian government says, “Recovery of the North Atlantic right whale will require significant international coordination and cooperation.” But this is what humans are worst at. Noise from the seismic equipment used in oil exploration affects whales’ behavior; meanwhile, Japan insists, more whales must be killed.
Yet surprising progress has recently intruded. Lanes for outbound ships in the Bay of Fundy have been altered to reduce the chances of ship strike there by an estimated 90 percent. Based on analysis showing that collision with ships traveling at 15 knots are almost always fatal, but when ships travel at under 12 knots half of struck whales survive, the U.S. established 10-knot ship speed zones around 8 port cities on the East Coast between Georgia and New York. A small northward shift—less than 10 miles—has moved ships coming around Cape Cod into Boston out of a Right Whale feeding area, reducing the collision risk by about 60 percent. Plus, special buoys now listen for Right Whale calls along the shipping lanes into Boston, allowing managers to alert ship operators so they can slow down.
Hope? There may have been as few as 50 North Atlantic Right Whales in 1900, far fewer than today’s 350 or so. And in 2009, North Atlantic Right Whales birthed a record 39 calves. [see also http://bit.ly/aC7hMV]
Today, we boarded a boat designed for whale viewing and within minutes we saw blows and breaching whales. We spent the better part of an hour quite close to a female with a calf.
The female spent a lot of time on her back, apparently seeking a break from nursing while the calf swam laps around her. In recent years these whales have had troubles with Kelp Gulls that land and peck them, opening wounds. The mother we were watching had numerous such wounds. Our pair had one gull annoying them like a large housefly, but, though it landed on the mother once, it didn’t get a chance to bite.
I’ve heard a lot about this area and its right whales and read about Roger Payne’s groundbreaking work in this region. So it was particularly great to be in the company of these great beasts, knowing that their worst times seem to be behind them and that now, protected and valued alive, their future looks better than it has in a long time.