By now, most of the Northern Right Whales have moved out of Cape Cod Bay and further north to the Bay of Fundy or east to the Great South Channel where the populations of copepods are still blooming in the colder waters there. These are truly huge animals, reaching lengths of 45 to 60 feet and weighing 60 to 80 tons. Broader than humpbacks, they have huge, box-shaped bodies that are roughly a third head and mouth. I remember seeing my first one, rising out of the depths just a boatlength from us (at the time, you shut your engines off and waited for it to go away). To me, it seemed an island rising to the surface. And it seemed impossible for an animal that preys on copepods to get that big.
They are identified, not from patterns on the undersides of their tails, though they do usually fluke up when going deeper in the water, by the patterns of callosities on the tops of their heads. The callosities are simply roughened patches of skin that are infested with cyamids (commonly called whale lice). All species of whale have cyamids associated with them and the species are unique to their host. Therefore, if Northern Right Whales go extinct, so do their cyamids. The callosities are unique to each whale and don’t change over time, both very important in an identifiable characteristic.
They are called Right Whales because they were the right whale to hunt. Before the discovery of petroleum oil in Titusville, Pa, whale oil was used to do everything we now do with petroleum. It was a lubricant. It was a source for candle wax. It was a fuel for heat. It was, and most of it went here, a source of light before Edison’s light bulb and electrical service. Right whales have foot-thick layer of blubber (fat) beneath their skin that when rendered (or melted) down, produces a very efficient oil. Lots of oil came from a right whale.
Before the inventions of spring steel and plastics, baleen was used to create nearly everything that we now make out of those products. Lightweight and flexible materials were needed for buggy whips, corset stays, the stays in umbrellas, decorative pieces, jewelry, hairclips, combs, and brushes. There is, quite literally, a ton of baleen in the mouth of a right whale. If you take several pieces of right whale baleen and band them together, you can make a spring for your buggy very much like the leaf springs we put in modern automobiles.
The average whaling venture leaving Provincetown harbor in 1840 would be gone for 40 months. That’s nearly three and a half years. Right Whales were so profitable that, it was said, if you got just one in your 40 month voyage, the proceeds paid for the maintentance of the vessel and supplies, leaving all the rest as profit.
And, of course, they were the easy whale to hunt. At a time when man hunted whales by getting in boats and rowing out to them, these whales spend far too much time close to shore. And, as if they needed to be more “right”, these animals are slow. Let’s face it, they are the snails of whales. A good crew could row up to a right whale (especially one engaged in feeding or courtship when they pay no attention to ANYTHING else, even hunters). Throw the harpoon! It is fifty to sixty feet long and hugely broad. And did I say slow? And they float. There is so much blubber that when you kill it the Right Whale floats. Wrap a line around it and you can tow it to shore. Truth is we are lucky there are any left. We have been hunting them for nealy a thousand years. Pressure was relieved a little bit in the 1930’s when it became recognized that they were commercially extinct (it cost more to search them out than you made from selling their products). Even this early, the Internation Whaling Commision dubbed them a protected species. The soviets continued to hunt them anyway for nearly another forty years, reporting their meat as finwhale and sei whale.
The truth is that I got very excited about the presence of Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay, last week, and wrote the preceeding paragraphs before I got the reports of this week’s sightings. I had hoped to be able to tell you that we saw one. We did not.
We did see minke whales, some trips reporting three-quarters of a dozen or more (June 30 and July 03).
There were also finback whales, nearly fifty sightings, in fact. The most noteworthy of these was thesighting of a finback whale mother and her calf on June 29.
And, yes, there were humpback whales too. Numerous naturalists reported more than a dozen sightings of humpbacks on their trips. John Conlon reported 25 on june 29. Dennis Minsky reported 17 on July 02, and later that afternoon, Carolyn OConnor reported 30. It was July 01 that boasted the largest number of humpback sightings. Between 32 and 42 were seen by Dennis Minsky.
Behavior wise, it was a week of feeding. In fact, bubble nets, bubble columns, kick feeding, and surface lunges were reported on nearly all of the trips of July 1, July 2, July 3, and July 4.
The highlight of the week was what appeared to be a teaching session of Spoon’s calf by her mother. Off of the bow of the Dolphin X, a spiral of bubble columns rose to the surface, turning the water green. Suddenly, from the center of the spiral, Spoon crashed through the surface, her mouth agape and water gushing from between the baleen plates at the corners. She was so fast her body rose nearly a third of the way out of the water. She was followed, at a much slower pace, by her calf. The youngsters mouth was also open and water could be seen sort of dribbling over its chin. This first time the calf came up, it was facing toward the bow of the Dolphin X, allowing all of the passengers (and the crew) the most amazing view of its baleen. Three or four more times, the calf lunged through the dissipating bubbles. Each time, its mouth was wide open. It looked to me, very much, like this calf was being taught to fish. And that was no surprise. This is a very big calf and Spoon is looking a little on the thin side after nursing it since its birth.