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Southern right whale moms may look for quiet place to raise babies

The endangered whales swim several thousand miles to shallow waters where sounds don’t travel far.

A southern right whale surfaces in Ribanceira, Brazil. The endangered whales spend summers in deep-water feeding grounds in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. But they travel north up to 2,000 miles to have calves and care for them in their early months. (Israel Maciel)
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To keep their newborn babies safe from falls and injuries, human moms might lay them to sleep in cribs with high sides. Whale moms use another safety strategy for their young calves: They migrate thousands of miles to raise them in shallow-water nurseries.

Southern right whales live in the ocean off countries like Brazil, South Africa and Australia. They spend summers in deep-water feeding grounds in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. In winter, females head north, up to 2,000 miles, to more secluded and shallow bits of ocean. There, their babies are born; a female usually gives birth to only one calf every other year.

Right whales were close to disappearing a century ago. They’re fading once again.

The shallow water is between 16 feet deep and 33 feet deep. But the zooplankton that adult right whales eat does not grow much in these places. Which means the moms are “just fasting the whole time they’re nursing their calves, and they use up all their energy stores,” says Julia Marie Zeh. She’s a marine biologist at Syracuse University, where she studies baleen whales such as right whales and humpbacks — as opposed to toothed whales such as sperm whales and dolphins.

Why would these animals make this puzzling choice? Zeh and her colleagues had a theory. They already knew that whale moms and babies didn’t “talk” much to each other. And when they did, they tended to whisper. That meant a whole lot of quiet was going on in the nursery bays, where Zeh has seen dozens of the huge mammal pairs hanging out together. (The average right whale mom is 52 feet long and 80,000 pounds; newborns are 14 feet long and 2,000 pounds and grow quickly.)

So the researchers ran an experiment. They used a computer to model the way sound travels in shallow water compared with how it travels in deeper water in the open ocean. They discovered that in shallow water, sound loses energy quickly. This is because it is absorbed by the ocean bottom and is also reflected off the water’s surface.

“Close to shore is where whale sounds travel the least,” says Zeh. “Another animal would have to be very close in order to hear them.”

Eavesdropping animals could include orcas, which eat whale calves. They also could include right whale males, which are interested in mating with the moms. “They can get very aggressive, and a calf can get caught in the middle and injured,” Zeh says.

Understanding the way sound travels (or doesn’t) in these whale nurseries gets scientists such as Zeh a step closer to understanding why these animals migrate as far as they do instead of staying put. It also helps them communicate how to better help whales survive in the wild.

Some animals have come back from near extinction. See photos of these conservation success stories.

Many whale species were seriously affected by whaling starting in the 19th century. Some southern right whale populations have rebounded. But their North Atlantic right whale cousins are still highly endangered, with fewer than 350 animals estimated to be left. They can get tangled in fishing lines and are vulnerable to being struck by ships.

“We can take some of what we’re learning with southern right whales and apply that to aid Northern Atlantic right whales,” says Zeh. “If we can understand which habitats are preferred by these whales, and why, we can understand which areas are important to protect.”