Speaking of Science

Documenting the decline of the North Atlantic right whale

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals.

A century ago, humans hunted the species to the brink of extinction. Now the population is plummeting again. The whales’ habitat is polluted by noise and sewage and altered by climate change. Speeding ships and tangles of fishing gear pose deadly threats.

There are fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales left in existence; if nothing is done, scientists say, the species will be functionally extinct in 25 years.

Scientists studying the species have a powerful tool at their fingertips: the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Every whale that has ever been sighted is recorded in this massive database. Researchers use it to track the health of individual whales and assess the overall population.

For each whale in the catalog, there are photographs, health reports and drawings of their distinguishing characteristics and scars — all data points in the effort to save the species.

Here are a few of those stories.

No. 1045

Sex: Female | Last seen: 1995, when around 70 years old

MFS/NOAA Permit #655-1652-01

In March 1935, 1045 and her 1- or 2-month-old calf were chased by a group of Florida fishermen. Both whales were shot with a rifle, and the calf was harpooned. After a six-hour pursuit — during which 1045 remained by her calf’s side — the calf died and was towed into Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was the last legal killing of a right whale in U.S. waters. Decades later, 1045 was filmed in Cape Cod Bay swimming with other right whales. She was last seen in 1995 bearing a deep head wound believed to be from a ship strike. Researchers believe she died soon after, around age 70, making her the oldest known member of her species.

Catalog No. 3530

Sex: Male | Age: 14 years old

MFS/NOAA Permit #655-1652-01

This young whale was named for his roughed-up appearance after scientists found him badly ensnared in fishing gear in early 2008, when he was just 4 years old. Almost a decade later, in January 2017, he was spotted entangled once again, dragging 450 meters of rope and a 135-pound crab trap that he’d probably picked up off the coast of Canada some six months before. Researchers calculate that Ruffian’s burden forced him to burn an extra 27,000 calories a day during his trip. But he survived and was seen later that year near Canada.

No. 3983

Sex: Female | Died: January 2018 at 10 years old

MFS/NOAA Permit #655-1652-01

This right whale — the latest casualty in an ongoing unusual mortality event in which 18 animals have died — was found floating, dead, off the coast of Virginia in January. Rope was wrapped around her body, and it’s likely she died from entanglement. Her death was especially devastating to whale scientists because she was a female who had just entered adulthood. She had never had a calf.

No. 1142

Sex: Female | Age: At least 41 years old

MFS/NOAA Permit #655-1652-01

Kleenex has had a loop of rope caught in her mouth since 2014. Disentanglement teams are tracking her through the waters near Cape Cod in hopes of freeing her — but bad weather has prevented them from getting close. Amy James, the aerial survey coordinator at the Center for Coastal Studies in Cape Cod, said Kleenex looks skinny and unhealthy. She bears wrinkles from weight loss and scars from the rope constantly scraping against her skin.

No. 4617

Sex: Female | Age: 2 years old

MFS/NOAA Permit #655-1652-01

Researchers with the Center for Coastal Studies spotted this whale in Cape Cod Bay on a snowy day in early April. She is a toddler, in whale terms, and already bears scars from entanglement. “It’s distracting, I guess, simply to know what she will go through in her life,” said Stormy Mayo, founder of the Center for Coastal Studies. “Her life will be shorter. And that shortened life, because it’s shorter, will threaten the population. … Her future is not a good one.”

Editor’s note: Federal law prohibits approaching a right whale to take a photograph without a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Any of the previous photos that were shot in U.S. waters were taken under NMFS/NOAA permit under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

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