This week, two endangered North Atlantic right whales were spotted feeding just off the beach in North Hampton. You may have seen the video on the news. This is an extremely rare event. I’ve never seen one so close to shore. This was following a copepod and plankton bloom that appeared all along the shoreline.
right whales are very distinctive. Their breath is V-shaped and their head is covered with white spots of whale lice (cyamides) which are used by scientists to identify each whale. These whales are also distinguished by the fact that they do not have a dorsal fin.
The two whales have been identified by the New England Aquarium as Aphrodite (#1701) a 35 year old female who has given birth to at least 6 calves in her lifetime and Andy, a 32 year old male. Northern right whales migrate annually between their feeding and mating grounds off Atlantic Canada and New England to their natal grounds from Florida to the Carolinas. It can be a migration of over 1000 miles!
Right whales are baleen whales. Along with the other baleen whales found in our waters, humpback whales, flippers and minkes, they have no teeth. Instead, they have something called baleen that hangs from the roof of their mouth. Baleen is keratin, like our fingernails and hair. It grows in bands that rub against their lower jaw and fray. When feeding, they take water into their mouths and push it through the layers of baleen and filter copepods, plankton, and small fish; then using their tongue, they swallow their food. This is a unique form of feeding found only in baleen whales and some sharks.
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Why are right whales endangered?
In the days of whaling, they were the “right whale” to spear. The whalers thought they were lucky when they spotted a sleeping ‘right whale’. They sleep on the surface, tend to sleep while being speared and bled, and they float during the process. Most of the whales woke up and ran when speared, causing the inevitable “Nantucket sleighride” by pulling the spearing dory several times in a mad ride until the whalers on board died.
The floating carcass allowed whalers to easily take the blubber on board. Hence the nickname “right whale”.
They were so easy to catch that they were one of the first whale species to be overfished to the point of extinction. I’m not judging the early whalers, they assumed the whales were so plentiful there was no way to wipe them out, they were just trying to feed their families. We in the 21st century have the advantage of hindsight and can see how inevitable near extinction was.
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The ability to sleep soundly has proven to be the bane of their real existence in modern times, as they often sleep after being hit by a boat or ship. Most whales wake up to the sound of a ship or boat, but right whales seem to be heavy sleepers.
the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for monitoring and managing these endangered species.
right whales(Eubalaena glacialis) have been on the endangered species list since 1970.
There are currently three populations of right whales in the world, the North Pacific right whale, the northern right whale in the North Atlantic, and the southern right whale located in the southern hemisphere. Northern right whales are closely monitored by NOAA and organizations like the New England Aquarium who are under contract with NOAA for this purpose.
Each whale is given a number and sometimes a nickname and the calves are counted and monitored and an extensive genealogy is kept for each.
How many right whales are there?
According to NOAA websitethere are about 350 right whales in the North Atlantic, migrating between the mating area off New England and their calving grounds from Florida to the Carolina coast.
NOAA scientists determined that the population would need to produce 20 calves a year to maintain their numbers and more than 30 to increase their numbers.
Currently, there seem to be more males than females, which does not bode well for any population. Females are mature at age 10 and produce a calf approximately every three years. Females are pregnant for a year. Unfortunately, it seems that the females only calve every 6 to 10 years, which exacerbates the low number of individuals in the population. Aging whales, as you can imagine, is a difficult procedure and is usually done through an autopsy of a dead whale. It is not known how old they would be if left to die of old age, the average age of female right whales is estimated at 45 years and that of males at 65 years. Unfortunately, mortality is currently determined by death due to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing lines.
What are we doing to save right whales?
NOAA has developed a new set of rules for all fishing gear that has a vertical line in the water.
This includes lobster pots, gillnets and mooring lines. Lobster boats are required to develop and use neutral buoyancy lines between their traps, detachable weak links at their buoys, or use “ropeless” gear.
Ropeless equipment has yet to be used successfully. Each state has required that lobsters in their state mark each of their lines, so if a whale becomes entangled, scientists will know where the whale has become entangled.
This should help determine which areas are closed at certain times of the year. Currently, NOAA has dynamic closed areas and slow speed zones surrounding wherever right whales are spotted.
There may be some good news though, according to an AP article in physics.org, in 2021 17 calves were born, one died shortly after birth. It seems that this number was higher than the total births of the previous three years. I cross my fingers that they continue.
If you’re lucky enough to go whale watching this week or just stroll along the beach, keep your eyes peeled for that distinctive V-shaped shot. You may be lucky enough to spot one of the 350 right whales that have remained in our waters.
Ellen Goethel is a marine biologist and owner of Explore the Ocean World at 367 Ocean Blvd. in Hampton Beach.