Ship Speed Limit May Help Rare Whales Survive Strikes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008; Page A06

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.

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