Photographing The Right Whales

rightwhale 01 Photographing The Right Whales

I’m sure somewhere in your home you have a framed family photo and somewhere in your memory is the story of where it came from — your sister’s wedding, last Christmas, your parents’ anniversary party. Now imagine photographing not just a family, but an entire species. Every member. That’s what scientists at the New England Aquarium having been doing for the endangered species of Right Whales.

Sadly it’s not as enormous a task as you would think.

The Right Whale is the rarest of all large whales. There are different types of Right Whales, which include the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Right Whale — all of which are highly endangered. There are only an estimated 400 North Atlantic and 200 North Pacific Right Whales making the Northern Right Whale the most endangered of all large whales and two of the most endangered animals in the world!

Tragically, Right Whales were given their name because whalers believed they were the ‘right whale’ to hunt. They had enormous value because of their plentiful blubber (used for oil) and baleen, and were easy to catch because of their size and speed. Right Whales are about 40-50 feet long and weigh between 60-80 tons, moving at speeds of only about 5 knots. Their blubber makes up about forty percent of their body weight, which is why unlike other whale species, Right Whales float when killed and can be easily pulled into shore. As a result, populations of Right Whales were decimated during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries until their population was feared extinct and a worldwide ban on whaling was agreed upon in 1937.

rightwhale 02 Photographing The Right Whales

Today, the remaining population of North Atlantic Right Whales – which are found off the eastern coast of the United States – face two main threats. Since Orca (commonly known as killer whales) are the only natural predator to Right Whales, these threats are due to human contact — collisions with ships and entanglement with fishing gear. Northern Atlantic Right Whales migrate for feeding and birthing through some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and as a result, many of their current deaths are caused by injuries from ship collisions.

To feed, Right Whales swim along with their mouths open. They feed on zooplankton and other tiny organisms that are captured in the whale’s baleen, which acts like a comb-like strainer, only allowing water to pass through and exit the whale’s body. As a result, any rope or net from fishing often entangles in the whale’s upper jaw, flippers, and tails. Although many whales can break free with minimal scarring, others are often caught there for a painful death lasting up to several months. In addition to these threats, the slow rate of reproduction for whales hinders the ability for the Right Whale species to bounce back. Female whales do not become sexually mature until 6-12 years of age and can only give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. Based on slow reproduction rates and current population trends, the Northern Right Whales are expected to be extinct within 200 years.

That is where organizations like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium come into play. This organization consists of both governmental and non-governmental organizations and individuals in the Unites States and Canada who work to study and conserve Northern Atlantic Right Whales. This organization is currently maintained through researchers at the New England Aquarium, located in Boston, Massachusetts, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

For over twenty-five years scientists and researchers at this organization have been working to protect these whales by learning more about them. Individual identification has proven to be one of the best tools available in understanding these animals. Each year, new photographs are taken and matched to the North Atlantic Right whale Catalog at the New England Aquarium. This Catalog contains about 34,000 photographs of about 450 whales, some of which have since died. The oldest and most famous in the catalog was first photographed in 1935 and died at an estimated seventy years of age, spotted and photographed only about six times in six decades. This ‘photo-ID system’ can provide information about where the whales can be found in different seasons, when and where they have calves, how long they can live, and the best strategies for conservation.

Right whales have several characteristics that distinguish them from other whales. These include the lack of a dorsal fin, a V-shaped blow, a long arching mouth that begins above the eyes, and a tail or flukes that are all black with a deep notch in the middle and smooth trailing edges.

The most important aspect in photo identification is the presence of callosities on the whale’s heads. Callosities are white and look like barnacles but are actually living cyamids (whale lice) whose placement and pattern are unique to each individual and are what scientists use to identify one Right Whale from another. Although the height of a callosity can change with the whale’s age the placement remains stable. The New England Aquarium’s catalog uses a coding system to match these features during photo identification. The software that sorts, retrieves, and identifies Right Whales using digital photography is known as DIGITS (Digital Image Gathering & Information Tracking System) and is designed to be adaptable for any photo-ID study that uses identification codes. As advances in technology and software improve, this system could be expanded to help many species considered endangered.

In addition to the work of researchers at the New England Aquarium, environmental campaigners and conservation groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Ocean Conservancy continue to push for changes that could help protect Right Whales. Some victories have been made.

In 1999, it became mandatory as a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan for ships to report all large whale sightings and any ship collisions. In 2003, the greatest victory for the Right Whales occurred in the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy in Canada is the prime feeding ground where up to a third of the entire Right Whales population gathers between late July and October. It is also one of the largest supertanker ports for oil. As a result of an international group of researchers, government agencies, and oil companies an agreement was made to move the shipping lanes four nautical miles east of the bay – a huge step in recognizing the importance of Right Whale conservation.

rightwhale 03 Photographing The Right Whales

In 2006, the NOAA along with conservation groups also proposed speed caps for ships traveling in areas considered to be ‘known Right Whale regions’. This initiative is an ongoing battle being opposed by big companies in the trading industry and government fear of an excessive disruption in trade. According the Washington Post, the NOAA released a statement this month saying that the situation was so dire that the loss of one more pregnant female might be the death knell for the species. This proposal currently remains the subject of intense debate among senior White House officials, while the right whale death toll keeps rising. Since NOAA first proposed the rule over a year and a half ago, researchers have found three whales dead from ship strikes and another two suffering from severe propeller wounds. The NOAA fears the slow government response is a sign of favoring economics over science. For more information on this issue and how you can help support this initiative, please visit the NOAA’s website.

On the individual level there is still a way to help. The New England Aquarium, along with many other conservation organizations, offers the opportunity to ‘Adopt a Whale’. Started in 1980, the Right Whale Research Program of the New England Aquarium allows individuals to choose a whale and a monetary level of sponsorship that is right for you and uses your money directly to fund field research and data analysis. You are given information and updates on how your donation is helping and you are sent a picture of your whale.

This program is one that many of us have heard of but until now, I did not realize the important role it played. You can place the picture of your whale among the many family photos that decorate your home. Each photo has a story and with your help, the Right Whales’ story won’t end any time soon.

  • Danielle

    Your article was very informative, as a scientist myself, I was glad to see accurate reporting combined with a personal touch. These animals are magnificent creatures and hopefully with more people learning about their plight more will be done in the future to protect them.

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