While I was exploring the East End of Long Island last weekend, my friend Gregg, who has an oceanfront home in East Hampton, called to let me know about a whale swimming in front of his house. Observing whales and dolphins from his home has become a common occurrence in recent years, but there was something different about this whale’s behavior. It was swimming extremely close to shore and in a large circle, not going more than five or six houses down the beach before it would circle back in the opposite direction.
While listening to Gregg describe the situation, I thought it seemed way too early for a humpback whale to be in our region. However, I recently read about how the first right whale mother and calf pair of the season had arrived at their summering area in the waters of Cape Cod Bay. Could this be a right whale in front of Gregg’s house? With so few right whales left in the world, the chances seemed very slim.
Being that I was already in the area I decided to stop by to investigate it for myself.
While en route, Gregg called to inform me that he had discovered a second whale swimming a little farther out. I was worried they were going to swim off before I could get there. Upon setting my feet in the sand, I looked out to see some commotion in the water about three hundred yards offshore. After taking a couple pictures, I quickly realized that we were in the presence of a mother and calf right whale.
North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species. The last survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conducted in January 2019, estimated the population to be 366 individuals, down from 412 the year before. This low population is due to hundreds of years of commercial hunting. In fact, the name right whale comes from the idea that they were the “right” whale to hunt.
Why were they the right whale to hunt? Being that they are slow moving and spend a lot of time close to shore, it made them an easy target for shore-based whaling operations. They yielded a large amount of blubber that was rendered into oil to be used for lighting, lubrication and the manufacturing of soap. Right whales have between 200-270 nine-foot-long baleen plates that are used to filter plankton from the water. This baleen, which was known as whalebone, was the “plastic” of the 1800s. Whalers turned the baleen into corsets, umbrella ribs, whips and hat brims. But probably the most important reason why they were considered the “right” whale to hunt was the fact that they float when dead, which made it very easy to tow them back to shore for processing.
Once I realized what we were observing, I contacted the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society — AMSEAS, amseas.org — to report the sighting. I have worked with members of AMSEAS for over 25 years in several capacities and I knew they worked closely with NOAA. They advised me to contact NOAA directly on their 24-hour stranding hotline at 866-755-NOAA to report the sighting. Due to the rarity of right whales, Rob DiGiovanni, AMSEAS’s chief scientist, drove out to document the sighting for himself. This was not my first right whale encounter with Rob.
In the fall of 1997, I was fortunate enough to witness my first right whales while fishing aboard a charter boat out of Orient Point. We were fishing for blackfish just north of Plum Island when we came across two adults basking in the sun at the surface. I quickly called Rob, who at the time was working at the Riverhead Foundation, to report the sighting. He was able to secure a pilot with a Cessna to fly him over the area in an attempt to identify the individuals. Unfortunately, he never found the whales. Equally disappointing was the fact that I could not document the sighting either. I did not have a camera and this was before everyone had a cell phone camera.
This is a day I will never forget. Seeing such rare wildlife was amazing, but not being able to scientifically document it has haunted me ever since.
Prior to Rob’s arrival, the whales finally decided it was time to continue on their journey and began traveling east. I feared it was going to happen again and Rob was not going to see the whales with his own eyes.
Even though this time I had photo proof, I wanted redemption with Rob some 24 years later. When Rob arrived at the beach and jokingly asks, “So where are these right whales?” I raised my hand and pointed to the east. Just then, they rose to the surface to take a breath and displayed their unmistakable “V” shaped blow. He smiled, congratulated me, and we laughed about our last right whale experience.
Even though commercial hunting of right whales ended in 1935, the population has yet to rebound. They are long-lived, at least 70 years, and are slow to reproduce. Females become sexually mature at approximately 10 years of age and will give birth to a single calf after a 12-month pregnancy. On average, there will be at least three years in between pregnancies. Even in a perfect world, a population recovery would take many, many years. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
Since 2017, there has been an “unusual mortality event” occurring, with 34 dead stranded right whales washing ashore in Canadian and US waters. The leading cause of these deaths has been linked to “human interactions” such as entanglements and vessel strikes. An additional 15 live free-swimming right whales have been documented to have serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. Spending a fair amount of time inshore, right whales have to constantly navigate a gauntlet of fishing gear (i.e. lobster pots) and boat traffic. With fewer than 400 right whales left in the world, these 49 individuals account for more than 10% of the population, which creates a significant setback in rebuilding their numbers.
This year there has been a glimmer of hope for right whales. During the 2021 calving season, researchers have documented 17 new right whale calves. This is big news, since there were only 22 births observed during the past four seasons combined.
“Although calving rates are still well below the average annual rate of 24 per year seen between 2001 and 2010, compared to the last six years, the 17 whales born this year are a positive sign for right whales,” said Diane Borggaard, Right Whale Recovery Coordinator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region. She added that “one of this year’s calves has already died due to injuries caused by a vessel strike. We urge boaters to go slowly, especially at this time of year when the moms and calves are traveling north. They are hard to see because they can be just under the surface, so going slowly is the best way to protect whales from injury, as well to keep passengers safe and prevent vessel damage.”
The calf that was swimming in front of Gregg’s house is part of the “Class of 2021.” This is the mother’s first known calf and they were first spotted together on January 19 off Wassaw Island, Ga. Mom, who is known as right whale #3720, was born in 2007 to Mantis #1620. Mantis has had at least three other calves, all of which are female, but #3720 is the first of them known to calve.
The North Atlantic right whale has a long road to recovery that is plagued with obstacles. After many years of being “the right whale to kill,” now, more than ever, it deserves to be “the right whale to save.”
Please take note
NOAA Fisheries announces Right Whale Slow Zones to mariners through email and text messages. You can sign up here. Choose “Right Whale Slow Zones” under the Regional New England/Mid-Atlantic subscription topics. You can also follow NOAA Fisheries on Facebook and Twitter for announcements.
You can check for the latest Right Whale Slow Zones on NOAA’s online right whale sightings map. Or you can download the free Whale Alert app, which will automatically notify you when you enter one of these areas.
There are mandatory speed restrictions for vessels 65 feet in overall length in seasonal management areas, which are defined areas along the East Coast for particular seasons. There is one off Block Island and one around the NY/NJ port area.
The NYS 24-Hour Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline is 631-369-9829
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is an award-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Mr. Paparo on social media at @fishguyphotos.