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Hoare writes: "As if to confound everyone, this past week Dr Charles 'Stormy' Mayo and his team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported seeing up to 150 right whales in Cape Cod Bay."

A right whale and a diver. (photo: Brian Skerry/National Geographic)
A right whale and a diver. (photo: Brian Skerry/National Geographic)


Facing Extinction, the North Atlantic Right Whale Cannot Adapt. Can We?

By Philip Hoare, Guardian UK

12 May 18

 

Once the right whale to hunt, Eubalaena glacialis is now beset by nets, ships and changing seas. We are losing a beautiful beast

s if to confound everyone, this past week Dr Charles “Stormy” Mayo and his team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported seeing up to 150 right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Dr Mayo – who has been studying these animals for 40 years and has a scientist’s aversion to exaggeration – is stunned.

“It is amazing for such a rare and utterly odd creature,” he tells me. All the more amazing since he knows this great gathering could be a final flourish. By 2040, the North Atlantic right whale may be gone. He hesitates, then uses the e-word: extinction.

How can such a huge mammal simply disappear within reach of the richest and most powerful nation on earth? Shifting food sources – due to climate change – are leading whales to areas where maritime industries are unused to them. In the past 12 months, 18 rights have died after ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. With as few as 430 animals left, 100 of them breeding females in a reduced gene pool, the species is unsustainable.

The right whale may be the strangest beast in the ocean. Vast and rotund, its gigantic mouth is fringed with two-metre strips of baleen, once “harvested” by humans to furnish Venetian blinds and corset stays but used by the whale to strain its diet of rice-sized zooplankton from the sea.

These bizarre animals are not easily known or imagined. They live far longer than us – like its Arctic cousin, the bowhead, the right whale may reach 200, perhaps more. Individuals could be older than constitutional America. They exist beyond us in time, dimension and experience. If we lose the right whale, we lose part of our planet’s biological history.

If any whale were to be so foolish as to claim nationality, the North Atlantic right whale would be American, spending all its life in US or Canadian waters. Its modern nickname, the urban whale, evokes its habit of foraging close to shore. Its historic name speaks to its fate. Being a surface-feeder, so near to land, made it vulnerable to humans. And when it was killed, its belt of blubber ensured that it floated conveniently. The right whale was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

By 1935, with as few as 60 breeding individuals left, the situation was so dire that the right whale became the first cetacean to be protected by law. But by the start of this century, the numbers seemed to recover. Shipping lanes were shifted and fishing industries took on board the whale’s protected status. It even got its own air exclusion zone. “Like a Hollywood star,” as John Waters quipped to me.

For 18 years I’ve followed that tentative recovery in the waters off Cape Cod. I’ve stumbled on to the winter beach to witness their fins and flukes tumbling so near the tide line I might have waded out to them. I’ve even watched them from my bed overlooking the bay. And on research cruises with the Center for Coastal Studies, special licence allowed us to approach close enough to see the whale lice (cyamids) crawling round their heads.

On one memorable trip in April 2015, scientist Christy Hudak and her team spotted 80 animals – almost 20% of the population. It was like watching dinosaurs, but such is the sensitivity of the center’s work that I cannot show you the dozens of photographs I took that day.

That sense of a huge animal being and not being there speaks to a paradoxical fragility. Veteran whalewatch naturalist Dennis Minsky, based in Provincetown, takes this story personally: “An ancient and noble beast is constitutionally unable to adapt to an array of anthropogenic threats – speeding water craft, the myriad vertical lines of fishing gear, an increasingly noisy ocean and poorly understood changes in water quality.” Federal and state efforts to help seem little more than “mere tinkering”. And with 80% of right whales showing scars from entanglement, what about their individual suffering?

“The lucky ones, I suppose, drown,” Minsky says. “Others go for months or even years, dying an excruciating death.” Minsky shrugs, summing up the situation in five pithy words: “They cannot adapt: can we?”

Like Minsky and Mayo, I feel an intimate connection to the whales of the Cape, a place I hymn in my new book. This is the edge of our world, where we meet the other. As I swim in its waters, winter and summer, I find it hard to see this as a site of mortality rather than life. What could save its most enigmatic, sensate and sentient animal? New fishing gear technology, tighter regulations? Maybe. But out there, swimming under the blue expanse that Melville called “the ocean’s skin”, Eubalaena glacialis needs one thing more than anything else. Our empathy. Just for a moment, can we stop thinking human, and start thinking whale?


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+9 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-05-13 08:11
The risk of losing the Right Whales is a grim indictment of human environmental incompetence. We neglect the fact that the rug we are pulling out from under the earth’s creatures is the same rug we are pulling out from under ourselves. I shudder at the tech-worshipper s’ notion that we must find another planet, as we've broken this one. Until we’ve repaired this one, at least within our as yet unexercised capacity to do so, we don’t deserve this planet, let alone another.
 

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