While I was exploring the East End last weekend, my friend Gregg, called to let me know about a whale swimming in front of his oceanfront house in East Hampton.
Observing whales and dolphins from his home is a common occurrence, but there was something different about this whale. It was swimming extremely close to shore and in a large circle, not going more than five or six houses down the beach before circling back.
I thought it seemed way too early for a humpback whale to be in our region. However, I’d recently read that the first right whale mother and calf 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 slim.
I decided to stop by to investigate. While en route, Gregg called to say he’d discovered a second whale swimming a little farther out. Setting my feet in the sand, I saw some commotion in the water about 300 yards offshore. We were in the presence of a mother and calf right whale.
What’s ‘right’ about this whale?
North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species. The last survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 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. Slow-moving and spending a lot of time close to shore, they were easy targets for shore-based whaling operations — the right whale for hunters.
They yielded a large amount of blubber that was rendered into oil for lighting, lubrication and the manufacturing of soap. Right whales have between 200 to 270 9-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 they were considered the “right” whale to hunt was they float when dead, which made it easy to tow them to shore for processing.
An unfortgettable first sight
After realizing what we were observing, I contacted the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society — AMSEAS, amseas.org — to report the sighting. I’ve worked with members of AMSEAS for over 25 years. They advised me to contact NOAA 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.
In the fall of 1997, I witnessed my first right whales while fishing aboard a charter boat out of Orient Point. Fishing for blackfish just north of Plum Island, we came across two adult whales basking in the sun on the surface. I called Rob, who at the time was working at the Riverhead Foundation, to report the sighting. He secured a pilot with a Cessna to fly him over the area to identify the individuals. Unfortunately, he never found the whales. Equally disappointing was that I couldn’t document the sighting either. I didn’t have a camera and this was before everyone had a cell phone camera.
It’s a day I’ll 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 at East Hampton, the whales finally decided it was time to continue on their journey and began traveling east. .
Even though this time I had photo proof, I wanted redemption with Rob 24 years later. When he arrived at the beach and jokingly asked, “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.
A tragedy in the making
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 years. Unfortunately, we don’t 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 U.S. waters.
The leading cause of these deaths has been linked to “human interactions,” such as entanglements and vessel strikes. Spending a fair amount of time inshore, right whales have to constantly navigate a gauntlet of fishing gear, such as lobster pots, and boat traffic.
This year there’s 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. Ms. Borggaard 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 mothers and calves are traveling north. They’re 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 North Atlantic right whale has a long road to recovery that’s 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. 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. You can follow Mr. Paparo on social media at @fishguyphotos.