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The Power of Three North Atlantic Right Whales

Along with my husband and children, right whales are woven into my daily life, my family, and my existence. My brain stays on constant alert as to what the needs of my family are and what are the needs of this species to survive.

I kid you not when I say that a normal chain of thoughts in my head goes something like this: 'don’t forget to swing by the pharmacy on the way home; the right whale sightings south of the islands warrant a mandatory speed zone; I forget to check to see if we need laundry detergent……'

The difference is that I regularly see my family, but rarely see these whales whose lives are so much a part of mine.  While I have had the privilege of seeing right whales many times over my career when I worked “in the field”, it is no longer a routine occurrence. Policy work is about saving whales, not seeing them.

A recent chance to get back on the water was an offer I could not turn down. I was asked to fill in as crew on a couple of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution right whale research trips.  I embraced it as a chance to see right whales, a chance to catch up with old friends, and a chance to be away from my computer. Three right whales later, I am forever changed.

Credit - Peter Flood

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Day 1

It was hard to keep my glasses from fogging due to the double masks we wore as part of the COVID protocols so my eyes remain red from staring into the sun reflecting off the water as we searched for whales for hours.

We found one whale, more than 20 miles from where we had started. He or she spent little time on the surface as we tracked them by their footprint, a swirling circle of water made by their fluke.

This whale embodied the plight of their species, barely visible at the surface as they traveled, putting them at an extreme risk of being struck by a passing vessel. 

When they finally raised their fluke from the water, their tail stock was tattooed with entanglement scars, a battle with a rope they thankfully won for now. The threats they face were not conceptual, they were real, and they lived in front of me.

The rarity of their kind was driven home by the more than five hours long search just to find this one whale.  This can’t be the last right whale I ever see.  I need to do more.

I wish for everyone who wants to save this species the chance for this encounter, to see who you are saving, for your heart to pound in panic at the idea of their loss, and for your adrenaline to take over and make you want to do more to ensure this whale survives.

Mom right whale with propeller scars, Courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies
Mom right whale with propeller scars, Courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies
Right whale calf, Courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies
Right whale calf, Courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies

Day 2

On land people basked in the sun and wore t-shirts and shorts on a warm spring day.  On the water we dressed for winter and for hours more of searching to find another right whale.

Today there were two, a mother and her little one by her side. I watched mom so purposefully lift her head to breathe, like the weight of the world rested on her shoulders.  It does. She is mom to one of the only 17 new calves born to the species this year.

She is a warrior who has a series of healed propeller wounds down her side and a bracelet of entanglement wounds on her tail stock. In spite of the scars she bears from humans, she finds us curious and allows her little one to quickly come over for a look at us.

This little “nugget” weighs over a ton. Like the “pug” noses of human babies, right whale babies have a “pug” head, an adorable dip in their rostrum which was so apparent when this little one stuck their face out of the water to get a look at us. Fresh callosities were still erupting from their face, the markings which, when fully formed, will be what researchers photograph to identify this whale.

What is most striking about this little one is what is missing. They are clean.  There are no scars from entanglements, no wounds from passing vessels, no indications that they have accidentally encountered humans. They are hope. They are hope for a world where right whales can live without these risks, they are hope for the survival of their species, they are hope for all of us who work to save them.

The weather has decided that there is no day three for me on the water. The boat is docked as the researchers wait and watch for a break in the forecast. I am back at my computer, a bit bleary eyed from the sun and forever changed. I will hold on to the panic, the adrenaline, the hope this experience gave to me.

We have so much more to do to ensure that this little calf will grow up free of scars and become parent to a new generation.  I am grateful to all of you who are helping to make that happen.

Another way to help is by sharing this on social media!

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