Laurie Murison – everything you ever wanted to know about North Atlantic right whales

“Most of our knowledge about the North Atlantic right whale has been lost and is only now slowly being re-learned.” This is not surprising considering that this animal is one of the rarest on Earth and has been to the brink of extinction and back, with an unknown future ahead of it.

Having studied right whales since 1982, Laurie is in a good position to know a fair few things about them. “Right whales are as active as humpbacks; they breach, they slap their pectoral fins against the water, they show their flukes when they dive”, (of course this means they are floaters, not sinkers!) They are skim feeders and, depending where their food is quite literally hanging out, they will feed underwater or at the surface. They feed mostly on a type of zooplankton called copepods, (all baleen whales feed on zooplankton as opposed to phytoplankton, which makes them carnivores not herbivores). Right whales are big, round, slow moving animals, not sleek and fast like the fin whale, so they do not need to have a dorsal fin to stabilise their body in the water. They also sport strange white lumps on their heads called callosities. These hairy protuberances do not inhibit the whale’s feeding; right whales have to move slowly to feed with their mouth open, water exits their mouth through the baleen in a turbulent fashion, and therefore, streamlining is not a necessity on their heads. “It is possible that the callosities actually facilitate their feeding, with the whiskers enabling them to sense patches of plankton.”

There are three genetically separate species of right whale; North Atlantic, Pacific and Southern. The North Atlantic right whales are the smallest, in fact all whales in the North Atlantic are smaller than their cousins in other oceans. “It is thought this is due to the availability of food for longer periods of time, which means you do not need as many fat reserves to keep you going in lean times. In essence, when a whale needs to fast for a longer time, it needs a bigger backpack of food and a larger body to carry that backpack.” In the North Atlantic, right whales are prone to irregular meanderings to different parts of the ocean and do not follow set migratory patterns. “They go walkabout frequently. They are very cool!”

Right whales are social animals, with groups constantly coming together and breaking up again. They form ‘courtship groups’ all year round of two to fifty individuals. A female is the focus of the group, with males vying for her attention. “Males compete simply by the quantity of sperm they produce. They therefore have huge testes and continuously high testosterone as they mate throughout the year, which means they are always on the lookout for a female!” The female will mate with multiple males and whoever has the highest production of sperm is most likely to flush out the competition and father a calf. Females only calve in the winter, so although they mate at any time, they only become pregnant once a year; most likely due to ovulating only once in this time. “When we study primates we see that chimpanzees can be very aggressive. Bonobos on the other hand, who mate for social as well as procreational reasons, are incredibly passive and cooperative. It is the same with right whales; their mating is probably as important socially as it is for procreation.”

Calves stay with their mums for a year. During this time they learn independence, as the mum may leave them to feed for up to two hours. “They will generally hang out, experiment with odd movements like surfacing tail first, play with seaweed and take naps. If they start to miss mum, they will look around, vocalise and, if that does not work, start slapping the water and breaching to get her attention.” Mums and calves sometimes form nursery groups where several juveniles play together and then try to figure out whose mum has just arrived to collect one of them. Like all whales, right whales are voluntary breathers which means they cannot sleep for long or they will die from suffocation. Instead, youngsters learn to become experts at taking naps. As adults they surface to breathe, digest their food, and nap for a few minutes, after which they will “Shake, stretch and dive down to feed again”.

Given the very small number of North Atlantic right whales alive, 450-500 individuals, it is probable that “Everyone knows everyone!” Researchers also know each individual and are able to study families, relationships and social structures more easily because of the small population.

But what took right whales to the brink of extinction? Laurie told me their story.

An amazing property of whale blubber, as far as humans are concerned, is that it becomes oil when cooked and, after cooking, remains an oil rather than reverting back to fat. It also burns extremely well and cleanly. These valuable properties may have initially been discovered by accident. Maybe one day a dead whale washed ashore and ‘cooked’ in the sun, turning its blubber into oil, and was later found by a human who had a brilliant idea…

“Commercial whaling began 1,000 years ago in the Bay of Biscay.” The Basque people became efficient hunters. They had stations on shore to spot whales and alert the long boats, the boatsmen rowed out, killed the whale and pulled its body back to shore. The blubber was then cut into chunks and placed in a big pot suspended over a fire. Right whales were the ‘right whale to hunt’ (this is how they got their name), for several reasons. They came close to shore, were slow moving, spent time at the surface and, because of the density of their blubber, floated when dead, allowing for easy transportation back to shore. Most importantly, their bodies yielded huge quantities of oil.

In the 1400’s Europeans started hunting right whales and bowheads further afield in North American waters. “During the 1500’s and 1600’s, the age of exploration and exploitation of the high seas, oil very quickly became part of European life.” Even by the 1600’s, right whale numbers had plummeted. Whalers started to additionally hunt humpbacks and sperm whales, but the price for a right whale was exorbitantly high. “One right whale catch could pay for the majority of a whaler’s costs for the entire year, so this incentive only served to accelerate their decline.” Whaling expanded from the North Atlantic into the North Pacific and then the Southern Oceans.

By the 17-1800’s oil was used in England for lighting, (oil lamps in the home, street lighting, lighthouses), and as the industrial revolution took off oil was needed to lubricate machine parts and allow longer working days in the darkened winters. “It is an interesting question to ask how differently the industrial revolution would have developed were it not for oil. That explosion of technology got us hooked on the stuff!”

By the late 1800’s the Norwegians had developed the exploding harpoon head and methods of transporting ‘sinking’ whales back to shore. This, combined with steamships, gave birth to modern whaling which was bad news for many species of whale, but took the pressure off right whales to some degree. Whale oil was by now being replaced by petroleum. “But when the industrial world stopped exploiting whales, the fashion world soon took over. The wonderful, flexible properties of baleen were discovered!” This material was used for women’s corsets, hoop skirts, parasols, springs in furniture, suitcases and horse drawn carriages.

In 1935 a decision was made to protect all right whales, no doubt helped by the fact that they were no longer commercially valuable. At this time it was believed the North Atlantic population numbered about 50 individuals, with about 400 in the North Pacific and more in the Southern Oceans. In 1937 the protection took effect and this multi-country agreement was a precursor for today’s International Whaling Commission. Illegal whaling still continued unfortunately, for example the North Pacific population fell to about 30 individuals due to illegal whaling by USSR.

It is possible that places such as the Bay of Fundy helped the North Atlantic species survive the whaling years. The bay, with its colossal tides and dense fog, never had a history of whaling and no sightings were made there before Dr. Gaskin’s work in the 1970’s. It may well be that whales who spent more time in remote areas such as the Bay of Fundy lived long enough to breed, thereby keeping their entire species alive.

In the 1970’s individual right whales began to be identified by researchers by documenting the unique patterns of callosities each whale has on its head. During the 1980’s their numbers grew from about 200 to 300. In the 90’s they suffered a decline, probably due to a lack of food and increased accidental mortality. The calving interval during this period increased from three to six years, which usually happens if a female has not recovered enough weight after giving birth. “2001 was a baby boom year with 32 calves being born!” From 2001-2011 an average of 22 calves have been born each year. And that brings us to today with an estimated North Atlantic right whale population of 450-500.

But what of the future for right whales, where does their story go from here?

“This is still unknown. We do not know if the North Atlantic right whale has sufficient genetic variation to survive in the long term, let alone the North Pacific species. The Southern right whales have recovered more rapidly. But all right whales face continued threats from other human activities such as ship collisions, entanglement, pollution, climate change and loss of food and habitat. We may be able to control shipping and fishing to some degree, but with the larger and longer term global problems of pollution and climate change, we have no idea what impacts will be felt in the future…”

In another hundred years time, I wonder what the history books and computer applications will say about right whales…

My next post on Laurie will, sadly, be the last. It will feature Laurie’s thoughts on our own species’ capacity for acting in a way which inadvertently has disastrous consequences, and her hopes for how we may become better stewards of this blue planet, which we call home.

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