North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species on Earth. These mammals were dubbed by 18th-century whalers to be the “right” whales to catch because they’re huge (up to 70 tons and 55 feet long), stay close to shore, move slowly and have large amounts of baleen and blubber, the latter of which yielded much oil and caused the whales to float when killed. The gentle giants were hunted to extinction around Europe and by 1900 only about 100 known whales remained around North America.
Now the whales’ numbers have tripled, and currently 325 whales are known to NOAA scientists, each complete with its own nickname. A concerted effort of international laws and changes in seafaring practices has led to this comeback. It’s been illegal to kill the whales since 1935, changes in shipping lanes and regulations on ship speeds have reduced collisions and U.S. gear restrictions have limited the number of whales getting caught in fishing lines.
Researchers warn, however, that the whale is far from saved. Six whales have turned up entangled in fishing line this year, and estimated 80 to 85 percent of right whales bear a scar from a previous entanglement. Efforts to preserve the whales can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. But so far, no whales have died from entanglements this year, and the researchers remain optimistic.
Read the excellent feature article in this week’s New York Times that chronicles, as they call it, The Fall and Rise of the Right Whale. The article is complete with breathtaking video footage.
Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.