“It’s a confluence of remarkable things. We’ve got extraordinarily rare animals, nearly extinct, acting very unusually,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale habitat studies program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
Before arriving early in Cape Cod waters, one of their main feeding grounds, right whales had a difficult winter off Florida and Georgia, where they gave birth to fewer calves.
Scientists are reluctant to draw a straight line between warmer water and changes in whale behavior, but some feel that they’re seeing more than coinciden-
ces. Water temperatures in and around Cape Cod Bay were more than 3.5 degrees above average this winter, although scientists say this is probably a short-term anomaly that can’t be directly attributed to climate change.
“To me or you 3.5 degrees isn’t a big difference, but in an ocean system it means different oceanography, different currents and different biological processes,” Mayo said. He suspects this could be driving changes in the distribution and timing of plankton blooms, in turn influencing the whales’ odd behavior.
With only about 400 of the animals in existence, North Atlantic right whales inevitably attract attention when they venture close to shore. The vast majority of them bear the scars of ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear, two leading causes of right whale mortality and a threat to the species’ survival.
Humans have long posed a threat to the docile, huge-headed animals, which were hunted to near extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries because of their slowness and buoyancy after being killed (thus making them the “right” whale to hunt for their oil and baleen). But there are indications that in the coming decades the whales will be affected by a changing planet.
“It was a terrible year for right whale calves,” says Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, a leader in right whale research.
Female right whales venture as far south as Florida to give birth, and the past decade has witnessed an encouraging uptick in calving numbers, with a yearly average of 20 and a high of 39 born in 2009. But this winter, aerial survey teams in Florida and Georgia have counted only six new calves, including one that likely died, apparently from malnutrition.
According to scientists, the disappointing numbers could be linked to changes in the animals’ northern feeding grounds brought on by water that is warmer but also less salty because of melting Arctic sea ice.