Photograph by Nick Hawkins
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Researchers perform a necropsy on Punctuation, a female North Atlantic right whale named for the scars on her skin. She was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June, one of six that have turned up dead in the last six weeks

Photograph by Nick Hawkins

6 recent deaths push rare whales closer to extinction

There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales left, and they’re being killed faster than they can reproduce.

Her skin is smooth and matte black, and it feels like spongy rubber when I press my finger into it. In the deep bow of her mouth, long plates of baleen are so straight and even that they seem unnatural. Named by researchers for the scars on her head that evoke dashes and commas, Punctuation measures 50 feet long and weighs ten times more than a grown elephant. Her sheer scale defies the possibilities of natural creation.

Alive, North Atlantic right whales are social, playful animals. With their gaping mouths, rotund bodies, and stout pectoral fins, they’re charming—in an otherworldly, prehistoric sort of way. Still impressive in stature, Punctuation is nonetheless a shadow of her former self. Her body, spotted floating in the ocean on June 20, has been towed ashore for scientific necropsy in Chéticamp, Nova Scotia.

North Atlantic right whales were saved by a ban on commercial whaling in 1937, after nearly being hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. But while their population stabilized, it never recovered. Mortalities numbered a few each year, predominantly from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. In the early 2000s, there were an estimated 500 North Atlantic right whales left. But since 2010, the population has been declining at an alarming rate, and scientists believe there are currently about 400 living North Atlantic right whales.

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A North Atlantic right whale lifts its head from the waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. These whales are endangered, threatened primarily by ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.

Things took a sharp turn in 2017, when 17 right whales were found dead along the Eastern seaboard—12 in Canadian waters and five in U.S. waters. That was nearly twice as many as were recorded in the previous five years. Researchers and regulators scrambled to figure out what was going on.

In earlier years, the whales typically only traveled as far north as the Bay of Fundy, just past the U.S.-Canada border, where the shipping lanes had been adjusted to help protect them. But as the distribution of copepods, the zooplankton that are the whales’ main food source, shifted north, so too did the whales.

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the fishing and shipping industries were unprepared to deal with their presence.

Wolverine

In 2018, the Canadian government instituted a new regime of fishing zone closures, shipping lane changes, and vessel speed restrictions. Only three whales died—and none in Canada. While no calves were born in that year, the right whale community breathed a sigh of relief that the deaths had been curbed.

January 2019 sparked fresh hope: Seven young right whales were born in the calving grounds off Georgia and Florida. But the jubilation didn’t last.

On June 4, a survey plane spotted 9-year-old Wolverine floating in a pool of blood in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As a calf, Wolverine had been struck by a ship’s propeller and left with three parallel scars on his back, which reminded researchers of the comic book character of the same name. In his short life, Wolverine had survived three known entanglements in fishing gear, but he managed to free himself each time. Many others aren’t so lucky and either drown or starve to death, if the entanglement compromises their ability to feed.

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A researcher removes a rib from the body of 9-year-old male right whale, Wolverine. The necropsy team looked for bruising, broken bones, and hemorrhaging, which could indicate blunt force trauma consistent with a ship strike. Preliminary results did not reveal a cause of death, but further analysis of tissue samples may yet provide an answer.

A team of researchers and veterinarians from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, and the Marine Animal Response Society performed Wolverine’s necropsy and released their preliminary results on June 9. They couldn’t immediately conclude what killed him, although further testing of tissue samples, which can take months, may yield a cause of death. (Also read about the unusual number of humpback whales dying along the East Coast.)

Punctuation’s body, on the other hand, leaves little question.

Learning from Punctuation

On the beach at Chéticamp, viscera spill from a six-foot laceration on Punctuation’s lower back, a wound that could only have been caused by a ship encounter. I stand upwind as much as possible, to avoid the stench of rotting flesh, which is pungent and strangely sweet.

The researchers and vets begin to dismantle Punctuation’s body. They use sharp knives to work through thick layers of blubber. Veterinarian Pierre-Yves Daoust hoists himself on top of the corpse, standing inside waist deep. His neoprene waders quickly darken with blood. The smell worsens as the day warms, but if Daoust is bothered, he shows no sign. With the help of an excavator, great strips of blubber are flensed from Punctuation's body, each landing on the sand with a deep thud.

The crew collects samples of the various tissues and organs, all of which will be catalogued and sent to researchers across the continent, who will analyze them to learn more about the health of the right whale population. “It’s important that their deaths aren’t in vain,” says Tonya Wimmer, of the Marine Animal Response Society, a Halifax-based rescue organization. Eventually, even Punctuation’s bones are pried loose and carted away.

Wimmer tells me that Punctuation was otherwise in excellent condition. “I’d never seen blubber that thick. She was so healthy looking, other than she had a giant cut down her back that killed her,” Wimmer says.

A magical day with a right whale

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry describes a magical but risky experience photographing an enormous right whale.

Every lost North Atlantic right whale is a blow, but Punctuation’s death stings especially bad. She was a prolific female, who had birthed eight calves in her 38 years. Since 1981, when she was first spotted as a calf herself, she’d been sighted many times and was well known to researchers.

Delivering sad news to the research community is often a job that falls to Wimmer. “Those are some of the worst emails and phone calls I have to make. People know these animals and they’re heartbroken,” she tells me, the strain in her voice palpable.

On the beach, suddenly, a hush spreads over the necropsy team. Work comes to a standstill. News of a third right whale fatality circulates among the crew—this one also found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A group of six researchers sits down together on a sandbank, silent and dejected. One researcher sits alone down the beach, her face buried in her palms. The tragedy of 2017 seems to be repeating itself.

More deaths

Within 48 hours, another three whales are found, bringing the total death count to six. In just four weeks, 1.5 percent of the population has been lost. Most concerning is that four of the dead whales are reproductive females, of which there are now fewer than 100. To make things worse, three more right whales have been spotted entangled in the first weeks of July.

“It’s a crisis,” says Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, one of many NGOs that works on right whale research and risk prevention. Right whales have numbered fewer in the past, but it’s the precipitous decline that’s most concerning, he tells me.

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Fishing ropes are wrapped around the head and mouth of a North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Entanglement may cause whales to starve to death or drown. A rescue team waited on standby, but this whale managed to free itself after three hours.

A study published this year in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms showed that, in the last 15 years, 88 percent of right whale deaths for which a cause was determined were deemed either from entanglement or vessel strikes. It also revealed that there were no natural mortalities of adult or juvenile whales. The study concluded that without meaningful change, the extinction of North Atlantic right whales “is almost certain.” Some estimate that the species could be functionally extinct in 20 years.

Kim Davies, assistant professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick, doesn’t believe that we can weave a narrative just yet. She notes that this year’s fisheries closures and vessel speed restrictions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were based on whale location data from past years. Right whales are shifting their migratory and feeding patterns, probably in response to climate change. Year to year, they concentrate in different places and at different times.

Davies’ research tracks the distribution of copepods. She hopes that with more knowledge about the movements of the whales' main food source, scientists will be able to predict where the whales will be, which could allow more tailored management strategies.

Until scientists have that data, however, regulators have little choice but to play it safe, says Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, which surveys and catalogues the population of North Atlantic right whales. She says that protective measures “must be broad throughout their range.”

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Wolverine survived a ship strike and three entanglements with fishing gear over his life, but in June, he was found dead. His cause of death hasn’t yet been determined.

On July 8, the Canadian government took steps to answer that call. Slowdown zones in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have been widened to include more areas and vessel classes, aerial surveillance has been increased sevenfold, and the criteria for fisheries closures are now considerably more conservative.

Even if these measures are successful in preventing further mortalities, the future of the North Atlantic right whale remains uncertain. But the right whale community hasn’t lost faith.

Solutions won’t come quickly, nor easily, Brillant says. Still, he sees an incredible amount of cooperation between industry, government, NGOs, and researchers. “It’s a full-court press going on,” he says. “There is good collaboration and communication and willingness.”

Knowlton, who has spent her career studying North Atlantic right whales, says the same. “Everybody cares,” she says, “and that gives me hope.”