A Southern Right Whale with Calf.
Photo: Iain Kerr
September 23, 2001
A Baby Boom
One of the three main programs conducted by the Ocean Alliance is the study of the Southern Right whale in Patagonia. Begun by Dr. Roger Payne over thirty years ago, this is the longest ongoing study of any large whale, anywhere in the world. As Ocean Alliance researchers busy themselves preparing for the Patagonia field season,
the Odyssey crew were excited to received word of the amazing 'baby boom' of the near-extinct Atlantic Northern Right whale, a close relative of the Southern Right whale. These two sub-species are geographically separated, spending their lives in opposite hemispheres.
The most critically endangered of all the great whales, the Northern Right whale is currently teetering precariously on the brink of extinction, numbering no more than 300 animals. The demise of the species began 500 years ago when it was discovered that these slow moving leviathans, were easy to approach, floated when dead and yielded oil worth about $5,000 a barrel in today's money. The name given to them because they were the 'right' whales to kill is a grizzly reminder of the past. These animals, once believed to have ploughed the North Atlantic in the tens of thousands, were hunted vigorously and without remorse. Today the population has yet to show signs of recovery, indeed their numbers continue on a dangerous decline toward extinction.
With so few individuals left, every birth brings new hope, while every death is mourned as a setback. While other species of large whales, such as the Grey whale, whose numbers were severely depleted through hunting, have begun to show some signs of recovery, the Right whale has not. Unlike the Southern Right whale whose numbers appear to be rebounding nicely, the story of this whale is complex, and it's barely managing to hang on in the face of adversity.
But the news is not all bad. This year in an amazing turnaround, Northern Right whales gave birth to a record high 30 calves compared to last years worrying tally of only one, a record low. The births are a much-welcomed boost to the population. Mothers and juveniles are currently starting their seasonal migration from the rich feeding grounds off Nova Scotia and New England, to their wintering grounds off Florida and Georgia. Researchers and scientists still are not sure where the adult males of the population go during the winter, yet another enigma of this unique species.
Having a lot of babies is only half the battle, these juveniles need to survive to maturity, which takes about 5 - 9 years. As it stands now, an unacceptably high number of deaths are occurring as a direct result of human impacts. Infant mortality is high and already 3 of the thirty are dead. Every year, scientists agonize over low birth rates. Sadly, their habitat along the eastern seaboard also happens to be one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. At least 17 animals in the last 30 years have been killed by ship strikes, while close to 7 percent of the population show propeller scars. Whales wash up dead and entangled just about every year, and more than half of the population have wounds or scarring from having being entangled in fishing gear.
The reason behind this years boom remains a mystery, but many scientists speculate that the El Nino phenomenon in the late 1990's may have had an adverse effect on the health of the adults, inhibiting their ability to produce offspring. However, scientists observed the whales fattening up nicely last summer, which suggests a possible link with the rebound in births.
Despite this amazing event, scientists warn that this baby boom does not make for a turnaround in the population. It is suggested this species would need to reach a total of at least 1,200 animals before its critically endangered status could begin to be reconsidered. Even so, some researchers believe the remaining population may not have the genetic diversity to recover as a species and that its fate is already sealed. Through genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed through females, it has been determined that there are only three matrilineal lines in the entire northern population. This means that at some point, possibly during heavy commercial whaling days, the population was reduced to three reproducing females, or three families of reproducing females.
For many of us, these animals symbolize not only the reckless exploitation of the natural world, but also the plight of the oceans and its creatures whose future lies exclusively in our hands. Perhaps now is our chance to attempt to right past wrongs.
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Darwin, Australia.
Log by Genevieve Johnson