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North Atlantic right whale #1950 and new calf © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Aerial survey funded by NOAA Fisheries and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

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Right whale research in Cape Cod Bay

Whale watching in Cape Cod Bay

Decades ago, I started in this field as an intern and then became a whale watch naturalist. I distinctly remember the pending frustrations of cold April trips in Cape Cod Bay, when whale watching for North Atlantic right whales was legal. The stressful anticipation of trying to convince passengers that their money was well spent seeing a whale fluke two, maybe three times. Everyone on the boat patiently, or impatiently, waited for the whales to surface after 15–20-minute dives, only to see them take a few breaths at the surface before disappearing again. I remember telling the passengers that even a mere glimpse of these whales was a privilege, given that only a few hundred remained and there was a possibility that this was a species their children or grandchildren may not get to see. This was only a half truth. I did think it was a privilege, but I couldn’t conceive that the U.S. would ever allow a whale species to face extinction… it couldn’t happen. 

© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, dock in Plymouth, MA
© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, dock in Plymouth, MA

Research to save a species

Decades later, I am back on the water in Cape Cod Bay, this time as a captain of a research vessel. I am supporting the important research of the brilliant scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and New England Aquarium whose life’s work has been to keep this species on the planet. The data they collect are used by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and our partners to advocate for additional protections for this species.  

It is a freezing day in February and there are periodic snow squalls, but the seas are relatively calm. Unlike a whale watch, we won’t be back at the dock in four hours, since our only limitation is daylight. It takes us three hours of searching to find our first right whale who immediately shows us their fluke, or “gives us the fluke,” and makes us wait more than 15 minutes for another glimpse. The image of that fluke is permanently burned in my mind because of the red and raw entanglement scars at the base. This whale is one of the “lucky” ones who somehow freed itself of a rope entanglement, but the pain of that wound won’t subside for some time.

© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall
© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall
© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, snow squall
© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, snow squall

The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale

The wait for this whale to resurface flashes me back to being a naturalist, not because I feel the need to convince passengers that it is worth the wait, but because the wait is essential. We need to get images of this whale to document the wound and identify the individual whale. Kelsy, our New England Aquarium researcher, is on the viewing deck above the wheelhouse. She is completely exposed to the elements and switching out her one working handwarmer to keep her fingers functioning so she can take photos. The whale surfaces and she takes some pictures, but we won’t know for some time whether they are adequate to identify who this whale is as he/she spends very little time on the surface before diving and eluding us for the rest of the trip.   

Not only is it a privilege to see these whales, but there is a real chance that each time I see one, it could be my last. The thought shakes me and the memory of my words to passengers from decades ago flood back and nearly bring me to tears. 

After decades of recovery from the days of commercial whaling, the North Atlantic right whale population started to rapidly decline, again. Between the first time I saw a right whale as an intern in 1990 to this trip in 2024, they have gone from a population of several hundred to more than 500, only to plummet to 360 in less than a decade. The population struggles to recover as modern-day threats of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements are killing them faster than their birth rates can keep up. Their designation has gone from endangered to the not so prestigious qualification known as critically endangered.

A deathly six weeks

In the first six weeks of 2024, five North Atlantic right whales have been reported dead or critically injured. A juvenile female whale, #5120, was found dead earlier this month, likely due to a chronic entanglement in fishing gear and another whale was found dead with injuries consistent with blunt force trauma caused by a vessel strike. A third right whale, the 2024 calf of Juno, was spotted with wounds from a vessel strike in January, and both Half Note and #3780 have been seen without their newborns who are missing and presumed dead. So far in 2024, the rate of loss is four times what NOAA has calculated as sustainable for the species to recover.

© Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina, injured North Atlantic right whale 2024 calf of Juno (#1612) seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip consistent with vessel strike.
© Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina, injured North Atlantic right whale 2024 calf of Juno (#1612) seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip consistent with vessel strike.
© DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359, injured calf of Juno
© DNR/NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359, injured calf of Juno

The preventable deaths must stop

Last week, WDC, in partnership with Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, and Defenders of Wildlife, went back to court.  We are asking the court to lift a stay on our 2021 lawsuit against NOAA to get a firm date for the Agency to release its proposed rule to expand protections for vessel strikes of right whales. Next month, we will be at NOAA’s North Atlantic Right whale Vessel Strike Risk Reduction Technology Workshop where we will provide input on why slow speed zones are critical to reducing collisions. In addition, our work to support trials of on-demand fishing gear continues to provide solutions to entanglements while allowing fishing to be more safely conducted in right whale habitats in the U.S. and Canada. 

It is only too late for this species if we give up, and giving up is not an option. My next trip on Cape Cod Bay will depend on the weather, but my unwavering determination to ensure this is a species your children and grandchildren someday get to see will not. Thank you for giving us the support and strength to keep fighting for this species. I know you are there with me when I head out on the bay.

1 Comments

  1. Susan Cody on 03/17/2024 at 12:55 pm

    Just read about you and your work. I’m so impressed by what you do.
    Please don’t ever stop. The whales desperately need you and the rest of this world to help them.
    Thank you for everything that you do.

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