The Tale of the Right Whale | South Carolina Aquarium

The Tale of the Right Whale

Apr 07

The Tale of the Right Whale

Back in the winter of ’96, Sara (our director of conservation) was suiting up for another day in the air. You might be wondering, what’s a marine biologist doing up in the sky and not in the sea?

Sara was a member of a specialized offshore aerial survey team in search of North Atlantic right whales. Every day for a four-month period (weather permitting), Sara embarked with three other biologists and two pilots onto a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane plane that had been retrofitted with bubble glass on both sides for wildlife viewing. After takeoff, they’d turn their eyes to the ocean’s surface, hoping to spot the elusive and endangered North Atlantic right whale.

For hours, they flew transect lines across the ocean searching for these captivating cetaceans. Biologists switched off in the bubble window seats, identifying basking sharks, sea turtles, mola mola and more until a tail fluke or topside of a right whale finally came into view. Synchronously, the team began recording the whale’s location (confirming coordinates with the pilots and using gridlines on the bubble glass for guidance), capturing aerial photos and video footage for formal identification and calling out any defining details to help determine the condition of the whale. All of this data is critical to understanding right whale behaviors, migratory patterns, feeding habits, reproduction and health status. It also helps sound the alarm to stressors they are facing as a species. Stressors that, if left unchecked, could ultimately lead to their demise.

In 1996, the North Atlantic right whale population was estimated at 263 individuals. Today, their numbers hover around 330. Even now, 26 years later, the plight of the right whale is still dire.

How It Began
Oddly enough, right whales got their name from the whaling industry itself. Because of their slow movements and abundant fatty tissue (known as blubber), they floated after they were killed, making them the “right” whale to hunt. Blubber was turned into oil to illuminate oil lamps or manufacture products like soap and paint. Even baleen (their strong, stringy and flexible alternative for teeth) was valuable to whalers. It was marketed as “whalebone” for its durability and used in fashion for corsets, skirts, collars and more.  Nowadays, it’s even earned the tagline as the “plastic of the 1800s” for their commonalities.

As the primary targets of the whaling industry, the right whale population declined from thousands to fewer than 100 by the early 1900s.

With right whales on the brink of extinction, the international community decided to ban whaling of right whales in 1935. In the 1970s, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act added additional layers of protection for right whales. In more recent years, vessel speed regulations along the right whale’s migratory route (including South Carolina waters as a critical birthing area) were enacted to alleviate collisions. Even with these efforts, it’s an uphill road to recovery.

Today’s Threats
Today, right whales still face human-induced threats, albeit indirectly. As they travel up and down the eastern seaboard, hazards threaten safe passage.

The threat of whaling harpoons has been replaced by discarded and active fishing gear, transforming the ocean into an obstacle course where entanglement is nearly inevitable. Current studies show that 85% of right whales have been entangled at least once in their lifetime.

NOAA News Archive 011811

Climate Change
Their primary prey has shifted due to warming waters caused by climate change. As right whales follow their food source, they stray into unprotected waters where vessel speed and fishing regulations might not exist.

Vessel Strikes
Despite their size, right whales still run the risk of a vessel strike. As they swim parallel to port cities, their migratory routes coincide with popular shipping channels and fishery areas. Speed plays a critical part. Right whales are slow-moving cetaceans; coupled with fast ships, boats and more, a collision can quickly turn fatal. Though speed regulations were enacted for this reason, compliance is low; here in Charleston, which is considered part of the Mid-Atlantic seasonal management area for right whales, speed compliance is around 11%. That equates to a lot more folks breaking speed limits than following them.

These threats are causing chronic stress for the North Atlantic right whale and could significantly hinder their long-term chance at survival. A 2020 study by U.S. and Canadian researchers found that compared to their southern hemisphere counterparts (southern right whales), the chronic stress they endure correlates to differences in their size, life span, birth rates and body composition. They weigh 25% less and are an average of 3 feet shorter than southern right whales. They don’t give birth as often and are noticeably thinner. By adulthood, most are not only identifiable by the white callosities on their face, but by scarring and injuries from entanglements and vessel strikes.

Do What’s Right
When it feels like hope is lost, always remember to look for the helpers. Look to those supporters committed to the survival of the North Atlantic right whale, because their innovation and dedication is inspiring and influential.

Look to the scientists and the aerial surveyors who spend hours upon hours collecting and interpreting critical data that aids in creating actionable steps for change.

Look to the fisherfolk who are modifying their gear to coexist alongside these cetaceans. Some have helped develop ropeless fishing equipment to alleviate vertical obstructions in their ocean environment. Others mark their gear (using braiding techniques and weaving in colored rope) to help identify the main causes of concern and change course accordingly.

Look to your neighbors, friends, family, colleagues and everyday citizens practicing safe whale watching techniques, like staying at least 500 yards away after a sighting and using binoculars and telephoto lenses to help view them.

Lastly, look to yourself and do what’s right. Knowledge is power, and sharing the tale of the right whale is a critical step to ensuring their story goes on.

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Published April 8, 2022

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