“It was a stunning scene—a 45-foot-long, 70-ton right whale hovering over the bottom just a few feet away from a diver standing on the bottom. … At some point I stopped and kneeled on the sand to catch my breath, and I was certain the whale would just keep swimming. Instead, the whale also stopped, turned, and hovered over me as it stared with that soulful eye. A few seconds later, I resumed swimming alongside the whale, making pictures, and savoring every second.”
Happy Whale Wednesday! This little whale and its mother are two of only about 500 North Atlantic right whales alive today. By working together, marine protected areas can help endangered North Atlantic right whales survive.
From December through March, these highly endangered whales bear their young in the coastal waters of Georgia and northern Florida, near Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. And in spring, summer and fall, North Atlantic right whales feed in a large swath of ocean from New York to Nova Scotia. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, just off the coast of Cape Cod, is a particularly popular feeding spot for this endangered whale species!
(Photo: Florida FWC, taken under NOAA permit #15488)
The slow speed, shallow dives, and multi-unit groups that characterize bowhead whales made them a prime choice for whalers. Turns out, they aren’t huge fans of being harpooned. Whaling was one of the deadliest professions straight through to the early 20th century, because of events like this. Even if the whale was eventually subdued and slaughtered, it was often at the cost of multiple lives due to hypothermia, drowning, or blunt trauma.
Harpoon points found in whales that had been freshly killed or beached in the past three decades have shown that bowheads are probably the longest-lived mammals. In 2007, an ivory spear, produced just as the US was headed into its Civil War, was discovered deep in the blubber of a bowhead hunted by the Inupiat of Canada. The fact that she survived suggested that she was, at the least, a young adult at the time, and amino acid racimization of her corneal tissue showed that she was between 150 and 155 years of age, and she is likely 50 years younger than the oldest bowheads ever discovered.
The Naturalists Library, Vol VII: Mammalia. Sir William Jardine, 1843.
Right whale calves weigh about 2,500 pounds when they are born and gain over 100 pounds a day while nursing. A calf usually remains with its mother until it is about one year old and 28 feet long. In this photo, the calf (right) is a little longer than its mother’s head.
Leucistic Southern Right Whale calf near Argentina, 08.02.2015
According to ACS-LA, “Leucistic (partially pigmented) southern right whale calves are uncommonly encountered; unlike the rare individuals in other species which retain that white appearace, these calves usually darken with age - although adults are lighter than normal.”
The first mention of Basque whaling was made in 1059, when it was said to have been practiced at the Basque town of Bayonne. The fishery spread to what is now the Spanish Basque Country in 1150, when King Sancho the Wise of Navarre granted petitions for the warehousing of such commodities as whalebone (baleen). At first, they only hunted the whale they called sarda, or the North Atlantic Right Whale, using watchtowers (known as vigias) to look for their distinctive twin vapour spouts. By the 14th century they were making “seasonal trips” to the English Channel and southern Ireland.
To finish off the month, here’s a selection of modern species:
Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) The largest living animal by mass – and possibly the biggest ever, reaching lengths of over 30m (98′5″) and weights of over 190 tonnes (209 short tons). Certain sauropods, jellyfish, and worms may be longer, but the blue whale still holds the weight record. They occasionally hybridize with the closely-related fin whale, and at least one blue-humpback hybrid has been sighted. The mysterious “lonely” 52-hertz whale may be some kind of blue whale hybrid.
North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) Heavily exploited by commercial whaling in the mid-1800s (and again illegally in the 1960s), the North Pacific right whale is now one of the rarest and most endangered large whales. Its western population numbers in the low hundreds, and its eastern population may be less than 50. Around 16m long (52′6″), they have arched jaws, very stout bodies, and distinctive callosities on their heads – rough patches of skin covered in colonies of whale lice.
Orca / Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Highly intelligent social hunters, orcas are the largest members of the oceanic dolphin family at around 7m long (23′). Some populations actively prey on other cetaceans – making them the only living whales to eat other whales. Although captive orcas (and other dolphins) are popular attractions at aquaria and theme parks, this practice is becoming increasingly controversial.