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Moby, Duck!
The southern right whale survived three centuries of hunting, but now a little birdie is picking on it—to death. By Tim Cahill

Illustration: a whale waiving a white flag
My friends in Puerto Pirámides are worried that seagulls may chase all the whales from their shores. I know, it sounds contrived, even silly. But last November the Penguin took me out to see for myself.

Pirámides, a town of about 200 on Argentina's Península Valdés, exists largely on the money that tourists spend when they come to watch whales. The Penguin—an appropriate nickname for someone impervious to cold and wet—is one of the few captains licensed to take tourists out to see the whales. (Some people know her as Diana Visintini.) On the afternoon we went out, there were dozens of right whales, mostly mothers with calves, only five minutes offshore, some of them in water less than 20 feet (6 meters) deep. They rose out of the sea or dove with their flukes in the air. Calves butted their mothers playfully. I have read some accounts of captains harassing the whales off Pirámides, but the Penguin killed the throttle a couple of hundred yards from the creatures and let them approach us.

No, it wasn't the tour boats that were harassing the whales, it was the seagulls, kelp gulls in particular. The shrill birds—I couldn't help but think of them as flying rats—are a real threat to the continued recovery of the southern right whale. Even I could see it.

The right whale was once hunted to near-extinction because it is the easiest kind to kill, a slow swimmer that often voluntarily approaches ships and boats in what human observers call a playful manner. A profitable prize, it was dubbed the "right" whale because the 100,000-pound (454-kilogram) creature carries enormous amounts of blubber, which will keep it afloat after it is killed, while other species—blue and fin whales for example—sink like stones in death.

Right whales, for all their size, are surprisingly athletic. They roll, they slap their flukes, they lift their heads out of the water in a move known as a spy hop. They find playthings and are particularly fond of swimming repeatedly through clumps of seaweed, which slides over them like a feathered boa. Right whales are wind surfers: They dive and raise their tails as if standing on their heads, their great flukes perpendicular to the wind, and ride gusts and waves for 20 minutes at a time. Then they swim back to where they started and do it all over again. Right whales breach often, which is to say they use their powerful flukes to propel their bodies nearly halfway out of the water and then slap back flat onto the surface of the sea with a sound like a sudden clap of thunder. Sometimes, on windy days, when the roiled sea muffles the whales' underwater calls, the New Gulf is full of right whales breaching and tail-slapping and spy-hopping, apparently communicating with one another through the medium of acrobatics.

Such endearing antics are surely the reason the Spanish call this creature ballena franca, the innocent whale. Rights spend half the year feeding in areas mainly unknown, then come to the shores of Argentina and South Africa and Australia to breed and give birth and nurse their young, often near shore and in extremely shallow water. In these shallows, I had read, there is some protection from the right's only predator, the killer whale, which hunts in packs. Orcas are often called the wolves of the sea. When menaced by a pod, the mother right whales will herd their calves into a circle and surround them in a star pattern, with their heads facing in and their powerful flukes slapping the water. The swift orcas are a fraction of the size of the adult right whales and, pinned against the shallow seabed, would be crushed by a direct fluke slap.

Frankly, I didn't buy this argument. The same orcas that might harass whales in the New Gulf often beach themselves taking southern sea lions, not far away at a place called North Point.

Once it has secured a struggling canapé, the orca simply wriggles its way down the sloping beach and into the sea. There had to be other reasons that the right whales chose such shallow waters.

A racier theory is that the female's preference is actually a form of birth control. Whales mate belly to belly, and, like a lot of other mammals—let's not make too much of this—the males are opportunists. In other words, the females come to shallow water, and the males can't get under them. There isn't room. The Penguin, I should note, seemed inordinately pleased about this strategy.

The whales can fend off pods of orcas and unwanted sexual advances, but they had no real defense against the human hunters of the 18th and 19th century. Francisco Moreno, the Argentine equivalent of John Muir, described a historic slaughter that occurred when a whaling boat entered the New Gulf in 1780: "The sea was covered with blood and oil," he wrote. Over 50 whales were killed in but two days. "The thirst for blood and lucre," Moreno continued, "filled the coast with colossal skeletons that are still whitening there. Now silence reigns where everything once was joy."

Right whales are now the rarest of all large whales. The northern right whale is all but extinct: There are perhaps 350 individuals in the North Atlantic. But the southern right whale is making a comeback. The South Atlantic population, which was estimated at a mere several hundred in 1920, is now thought to comprise some 7,500 animals, and it is growing at the healthy rate of about 7 percent a year.

This is hopeful news, but everyone in Pirámides is worried about the seagull attacks, which are something new. Kelp gulls have always landed on the backs of right whales, and they have always fed on sloughed-off whale skin. In the late 1970s, however, scientists from the U.S.-based Ocean Alliance began to observe a new behavior. The gulls were pecking into living whale flesh with their sharp, powerful beaks. They'd open up a wound, then stay on it, hovering above the animals when they dove, then working on the wound again when the whales rose to nurse or rest.

The Penguin pointed out almost two dozen wounds on a single whale's back. Many were the size of dinner plates, and the gulls returned to these open sores and enlarged them, pecking, pecking, pecking. It was clearly an agony: I watched the gulls pecking away, while the mother whale arched her back, threw up her head, and finally dove to escape. Some studies suggest that seagull attacks disrupt nursing activities. A nursing mother, subjected to such attacks, will often cease nursing and dive. But they have to come up because their newborn calves cannot stay long underwater. And the gulls are hovering, waiting.

The gull population in the area has exploded, probably due to an increase in man-made food sources, specifically the three fish processing plants and the open-air dump in the nearby mainland town of Puerto Madryn, which is growing fast. Seagull attacks on whales have doubled and doubled again since the phenomenon was first observed. People in whale-tourism-dependent Pirámides are not happy about Puerto Madryn's gull-spawning pollution.

The Penguin stayed out as the sun set, and we watched as the sky purpled down into a darkness colored by glowing crimson streaks. A whale breached nearby, silhouetted against a neon sky. I thought: They used to kill them with harpoons. Now we torment them with gulls.

Illustration courtesy of Eric Palma

From the print edition, March 2004

The Grand Canyon Tool Kit: Essential strategies for doing the canyon right
Hiking the Grand Canyon: Three ways to hoof the hole
Rafting the Grand Canyon: The best way to run the Colorado
Canyon Legends: Three unsolved mysteries
High Holy Days: Cleansing your karma on Tibet's Mount Kailas
The Adventures of Tim Cahill: Why a little bird is picking on a whale
Special Report: Wreck diving's deep frontier, on the S.S. Aleutian

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March 2004

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