By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008
Last Monday, researchers aboard a Cessna aircraft spotted a right whale and her calf loitering in the Atlantic about six miles east of Hilton Head Island, S.C. They fired off a bulletin to the Coast Guard, the Navy, and ship captains up and down the coast:
"WHALE ALERT 18NM NE "T" (SCGA003) 24NOV2008, 1440(L), 3209.3N, 08027.8W, 1 ADULT, 1 CALF, NW"
The endangered North Atlantic right whale can live as long as a human being. It breathes air, like other mammals, but can submerge for 30 minutes and feed on plankton 600 feet below the surface. It generally stays close to shore but can cross the open ocean from Maine to Norway. What this creature cannot do, usually, is survive a collision with a ship.
That's a critical problem this time of year, when pregnant females cruise south from the cold waters off Canada and New England to the warm nursery off the southeastern U.S. seaboard. It's a journey of 1,500 miles or so, through some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
"It's an incredible gantlet that they have to run," said Marilyn Marx, a whale researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston. "When you look at the migratory paths of right whales and you see how many shipping channels they have to cross, it's amazing that any of them are alive today."
Somewhere out there is Phoenix, who has the unusual quality of being both a living creature and a museum exhibit. Born in 1987, Phoenix is the model for the right whale dangling from the ceiling of the new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. She became the poster child for right whales because her well-documented life has featured many of the dramas and hazards faced by her species. She survived a nearly lethal encounter with fishing lines, one of which left a scar on her lip -- a scar that, along with her other markings, is scrupulously replicated in the museum's whale.
Phoenix's mother, Stumpy, lost part of a fluke in what may have been a ship collision and eventually was killed, along with a fetus, when struck by a ship off the Virginia coast in 2004. Phoenix has given birth three times, and one of her offspring, Smoke, had her first calf in 2007.
Researchers last spotted Phoenix this past summer in the Gulf of Maine. Her whereabouts at the moment are unknown, though she is probably in the northern part of the range.
This year the whale migration will be somewhat less risky as the result of a controversial regulation that goes into effect Dec. 9. Pushed through by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, despite protestations from the shipping industry and resistance by the White House, the rule limits the speed of large ships within 20 miles of shore during the migratory season. Ships cannot go faster than 10 knots, or 11.5 mph.
"If, in fact, there would be a collision, the whales would have a much greater chance of surviving," said Dianna Schulte, a zoologist with Wildlife Trust, which conducts aerial surveys of the whales.
Once these animals were the foundation of the Atlantic whaling industry. They received their name because they were the "right" whales to hunt. They're slow, they float when dead, and they're often reachable in a rowboat from shore. Their blubber was rendered for oil, and their baleen used for everything from buggy whips to women's corsets. By the 1930s, the population had dwindled to fewer than 100 animals. A worldwide ban on killing right whales (there are two other, related species in the North Pacific and in the Southern Hemisphere) took effect in 1937.
Today there are an estimated 400 North Atlantic right whales, still a precarious number. One year recently the population produced only a single calf, Marx said. In another recent year, six calves survived but six other whales died in shipping accidents, she said.
The whales feed off a type of plankton found in the Bay of Fundy, Cape Cod Bay, the Gulf of Maine and other waters of the North Atlantic. But warmer water boosts the viability of the calves, and so the pregnant females migrate south past the ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville.
The whales call to one another and can locate objects with their sonar, but they are effectively blinded to the approach of ships by the disorienting racket of ship engines. The sea is filled with noise -- what researchers call ensonification. The underwater cacophony may provoke whales to surface, putting them at greater risk of a ship strike.
"The ocean is no longer a pristine place, and where these animals particularly congregate is more or less like being on the streets of New York City," said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium.
Hamilton has put together the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, a searchable online database that helps researchers track the movements of individual whales. Each one has distinct markings, particularly callosities, extremely rough patches of skin on the whale's head and lips. These "urban whales" also have plenty of scars from propellers and entanglements with fishing lines.
No one knows precisely how long a right whale can live, but it may be more than 100 years. The related bowhead whale can reach 200 years. The oldest documented right whale, which never received a name but is listed in the catalog as No. 1045, was first seen and photographed in 1935 with a calf off the coast of Florida. Fishermen harpooned the calf and then shot both the calf and the mother.
For eight hours the mother stayed with her injured calf. It finally died, and the mother swam away.
In the 1990s, researchers came across a news clipping of the 1935 incident and realized that the whale matched a female photographed in 1959, 1985 and 1992. She was believed to be at least 70 years old when, in 1995, she received a severe wound from a propeller. She was never seen again.