In the course of North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay

In Cape Cod Bay, my son and I kept pace with a North Atlantic right whale. We were sailing east in a light wind at about three knots, or four miles per hour. Ahead and to our left, the whale swam in the same direction and speed. Its black head was low in the water, parting the water, like a self-propelled tree with lumpy bark. We held our respective courses for about half an hour. Suddenly the whale made a right turn. Looking like a collision course, I altered course turning the white boat away to the right. The whale turned and swam directly at us. Her or his lower lips flapped against either side of a smooth upper lip like barn doors unlatching. Just before we collided the whale dove below the surface, eyed the left side of our wooden vessel, rose and swam obliquely off to the north.

Lark Harbor, Bay of Islands, Newfoundland

This July I came close to sailing with right whales again. The tall ship Bark Europa was in Bay of Islands Newfoundland. They were sailing for Nova Scotia and had room for one more to stand watch, haul halyards and coil line. I boarded the ship in the paper mill town of Corner Brook. By sunset we were anchored in Lark Harbor, the harbor named for the HMS Lark that was in this place 250 years earlier.

We cleared the Bay of Islands in the morning and headed south along the western shore before Cedar Cove. The wind was very light from the north. In addition to the six square sails on fore and main masts, plus gaft-rigged mainsail on the mizzen, stunsails were set with clews pulled out on whisker poles, three above each other on either side of the foremast sails.

Pulling out the whisker pole.
Setting lower stunsail.
Europa off Cedar Cove, Newfoundland with stunsails set.
Europa may be the last sailing ship in the world with a complete set of stunsails, 3 x 3.

Residents of Corner Brook, crewing on Europa, proudly told me of eight North Atlantic right whales working zooplankton-shoaled waters at the mouth of Newfoundland’s largest estuary. The next day, I was given the sad news that a right whale had been found dead nearby over Lark Mountain in Cedar Cove.

Nobody lives in Cedar Cove because it is on the outside of the Bay of Islands facing Canadian weather that rushes head-long across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Cedar Cove Trail Head Parking Lot is at the end of the road from Corner Brook. Past York Harbor and Lark Harbor, the road ramps up through spruce forests around table-top moors to a place known for the best beach combing in Newfoundland.

Thankfully, this was not one of the local whales. In the photo it appeared flattened, reminding me of discarded trousers strewn over granite boulders. The carcass had been battered; internal organs rotted away. Genetic profiling later confirmed that this whale had been found five weeks earlier floating dead north of Prince Edward Island.

With long night watches, we talked. For them the tragedy of right whale deaths was eclipsed by the joy and pride that North Atlantic right whales were summering in their neighborhood. The challenge is that right whales are very difficult to see. They swim slowly with mouth open filtering out plankton through baleen plates that hang down in the mouth. At times, with top lip above the water and baleen visible, a clickety-clack sound may be heard of plates hitting one another.

Right whales lack the speed, wheel and splash of fin and humpback whales. They do not have a dorsal fin. Flat-backed, slow moving, a right whale on the water looks much a like floating log. What is distinctive off the sands of Provincetown is not so obvious in Bay of Islands because Corner Brook has at the water’s edge mountains of logs piled next to the paper mill.

Corner Brook, Newfoundland, with paper mill off to the right.
Cod fishing is good with no more than three people to a boat and no more than 5 cods to a person.
Leaving the Bay of Islands
Clearing Murray Mountain and around the Friar.

This was not the first right whale to perish close by the Bay of Islands. A few weeks earlier, a right whale was also found dead in Chimney Cove on the outer shore just north of the Bay of Islands.

The Bay of Islands is arguably Newfoundland’s most important estuary due to the cold waters that flow down the Humber River from Deer Lake. This is a strong salmon run with grilse, small salmon, and salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Here’s proof of a healthy ecosystem.

This summer a right whale was also found dead in the very Southwest corner of Newfoundland at Cape Ray, fifteen miles west of Port Aux Basques. A fourth right whale was found dead on the Western shore south of the River of Ponds. This whale expired about 275 north of Cape Ray, twice the distance north to Bay of Islands.

Twelve North Atlantic right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. Of the twelve, necropsies were performed on seven of them. Six whales showed signs of quick death by blunt trauma, almost certainly meaning they were struck by ships. One whale had died from entanglement with snow crab fishing gear. This whale had collided with fixed gear. During the next three or four days more gear was struck. The whale was further entangled before dying.

The Canadian government responded swiftly, slowing ship traffic and closing the snow crab fishery through September. To alert ships in the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, an underwater acoustic drone was deployed listening for right whales and broadcasting where they were roaming.

In 2013 the reported North Atlantic right whale population, those whales observed in the Gulf of Maine, peaked at 476, having climbed from 291 in the late 1990’s. The population appeared to drop a bit in 2014. So, in 2015 the first survey of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was held in western portions near Prince Edward Island.

Snapping mug shots of whales from light aircraft, individuals were identified by white patches of roughed skin, unique callosity markings, like facial hair above eyes and lips. They sighted forty to forty-five right whales were photo-documented in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The next summer, in 2016, 40 to 45 whales were again sighted.

Yet, they were not all the same individual whales. Seventy-four individuals over the two seasons were documented. It is possible different whales summered here different years. It is more likely at least seventy-four right whales were there both summers either outside the area surveyed or swimming too deep to be photographed from aircraft.

This summer, 100 right whales were found in the waters north and west of Prince Edward Island. By the end of September, by all accounts, 117 North Atlantic right whales were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Right whales have a “V” shaped spout, that’s the tail far left.
White callosities on head. Note lower lip just breaking surface to left.
Right whales may be viewed from the beach in Provincetown.

Clearly, for North Atlantic right whales the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is an important habitat area not yet well described. The Gulf of Saint Lawrence provides vast watery realms where whales stoke up on shoals of plankton. In this magnificent place, there is hope (rather than “catastrophic loss”) for these endangered whales.

For the people of the high granite outcropped shores of Newfoundland as well as those of the lobster-red sandstone ledges of Prince Edward Island, the question is not why would right whales leave the Gulf of Maine. They wonder what took the right whales so long to rediscover spectacular seascapes. I believe the answer is due in part to fishermen sinking and reducing fixed gear lines, and to ship operators slowing to ten knots when whales are nearby.

New (or newly discovered) summer residencies for right whales are all the more meaningful because the winter location of much of the right whale population remains unknown.

There are indications of even more right whales. Genetic studies of right whales calving off of the Southeastern US found that when sampled again in summering areas only 60% of known calves were documented. The remaining 40% of calves and mothers were not observed on known summering grounds. There also appear to be more male right whales summering somewhere unknown, along with those calves and female whales.

There are very likely more North Atlantic right whales than reported, more than 500. A greater abundance of right whales is due in part to ship operators slowing to ten knots when whales are nearby, and due to fishermen sinking and reducing fixed gear lines, pausing in the presence of whales, and savoring the moment.

The way to zero right whales being killed by human activities is clear. Watch North Atlantic right whales when you have the rare opportunity. Take the helm. Should that whale change course, adjust your course and you’ll be in good company.

Gannet on starboard tack, Boston Harbor

Rob Moir, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute. He writes Clam Chowdah dot org blog and hosts Moir’s Environmental Dialogues iTalk radio.