They were swimming along together as one, two male North Atlantic right whales, each draping a fin over the other’s body.
It looked as if they were hugging.
“Are they showing affection? Are they showing love?” mused Michael Moore, a right whale expert at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. He was on a small boat in Cape Cod Bay with a colleague, Amy Knowlton, and photographer Brian Skerry and his assistant. “We agreed ‘affection’ was a word we might hypothesize.”
The scientists had taken to the water on February 28 to count right whales and visually assess their size and overall health. In spring, the whales migrate northward from warm Caribbean waters where they give birth to cold waters in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, where the zooplankton they eat are more abundant.
Moore says this was the first time he’d observed right whales swimming like that—a posture scientists refer to as belly-to-belly behavior. He says the video footage of the two males, recorded by a drone Skerry, a National Geographic Explorer, had launched, offers the clearest view of the phenomenon ever seen.
The footage shows what scientists refer to as a “surface active group” of whales and features a snapshot of one of two different groups, seen four hours apart, swimming through the bay and possibly mating.
“So much of what we wanted to do with my photo coverage was to try to create empathy for these animals,” Skerry says. “The science alone hasn’t been enough to get public opinion engaged. This is a species that could go extinct in our lifetime.” (Let Skerry take you inside the hidden world of whale culture.)
Fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain in the ocean, making them one of the planet’s most critically endangered species. A century of commercial hunting saw the whales in steep decline by the 20th century, and their numbers keep falling. During the past four years alone, 34 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead on beaches after getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by ships. Postmortems are done on each whale that washes ashore to determine the cause of death.
Studies suggest that whales form groups for play, to maintain social bonds, to mate, or to prepare for mating. “North Atlantic right whales engage in these social surface interactions very commonly,” says Susan Parks, a behavioral ecologist at Syracuse University, in upstate New York. “The behavior has been observed in all known habitats, at all times of the year.”
For Moore, what looked like a whale hug was more than a curious animal behavior. “One of the reasons it was so overwhelming to me was that there has been an awful lot of bad news for right whales in the past 20 years,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of necropsies, taking them apart on the beach.”
What surprised him most was “the gentleness of the whole thing. It was like a slow waltz,” he says. “Having a ringside seat on a private time in that group somehow had a heartbeat of hope.”
Peaceful ways of right whales
“These guys are just interacting," Knowlton, of the New England Aquarium, in Boston, says, referring to the apparent hug. “What it means, we can’t really be sure.”
Moore says the video shows the peaceful ways of right whales. If the males are preparing to mate, they’re being “gentle, laid-back, and slow,” he says.
“Whales touch each other. Fish touch each other. Birds, insects, mice, touch each other. This isn’t necessarily novel or relevant, it’s just lovely to look at,” says Michelle Fournet, a marine mammal scientist at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. Calling what they’re doing hugging, she says, is an example of our impulse to interpret animal behavior in human terms—anthropomorphically—which can distort an accurate understanding of their behavior.
When working on the documentary series Secrets of the Whales for Disney+, Skerry says, “[scientists] were saying whales have culture and personality and joy and grief. A few decades ago, that wasn’t the case. Many traditional scientists are very much saying those things today.”
A ‘kernel of hope’
Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the biggest challenges to the recovery of North Atlantic right whales, but their birth rates are also declining, possibly because of food shortages in their northern feeding grounds, a result of climate change.
Only about a hundred of the remaining whales are females of reproductive age, capable of producing a calf once every three years. This low birthrate highlights the importance of every individual.
“I’m very interested in what it takes for a right whale to be fit enough to get pregnant,” Moore says.
About 30 calves should be born every year to sustain the species, according to Moore. Between December 2020 and March of this year, 17 newborns were seen swimming between Florida and North Carolina. That’s a good tally, he says, given that during the past four years combined, only 22 were counted.
The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service is in the process of setting new regulations to prevent whales from getting caught in lobster and crab lines, and the agency has imposed speed limits on vessels traveling along whale migration routes. (Conservationists are pushing for more stringent measures.)
“There's so little good news,” Moore says. “And this little clip of video has that sort of kernel of hope,” Moore says. Those whales swimming through Cape Cod Bay, if not actively mating, “were at least prospectively procreating,” he says.
Brian Skerry is a National Geographic Society Explorer and Storytelling Fellow. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers. This research trip was made possible with support from the Conservation Law Foundation, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the New England Aquarium.