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Naturalist’s Notebook: May 03 to 09

What struck me most in reading the accounts of this week’s trips is the aparent disappearance of the right whales.  Yes, they are probably still somewhere else within Cape Cod Bay, but there appear to be none remaining between Provincetown Harbor and Race Point.   Not a single Right Whale has been reported this week.  However, in previous years, especially 2011, there were still numerous Right Whales along the Long Point and Herring Cove beaches until nearly June.

Right Whales are one of the few “purists.”  It was said that they feed only on the rain that falls on the sea.  What they actually feed upon are copepods, billions and billions of copepods.  While most of the other baleen whales common here are feeding on small schooling fish, the Right Whales are maximizing their effort by seeking out vast patches of copepods.  By weight, copepods have nearly ten times the caloric value as the small fish that feed on them.  Right Whales look to feed upon just about a ton of copepods a day, giving them a tremendous caloric advantage.  This advantage allows them to maintain their huge bodies.. In the North Atlantic, a Right Whale might be fifty or sixty feet long and weigh sixty or eighty tons.

Huge bodies.  These are very broad animals without dorsal fins.  The first third of their body is pretty much an eating machine consisting of a huge box-shaped head with 600 to 800 plates of baleen hanging from a narrow upper jaw into a wider and much deeper lower jaw.  These baleen plates (and the very fine hairs on the inside surfaces of each) are used to collect the copepods out of the water as the whale swims along with its mouth open.  Unlike species that belong to the rorquals, Right Whales do no open their mouths to nearly a hundred thirty degrees and lunge through patches of food.  They, instead, open their mouths so that the bottom of the baleen plates is still housed within the upturning lower jaw and swim forward slowly, allowing seawater to enter the front of the mouth (where there is no baleen) and filter out between the baleen plates on either side.  The copepods are collected in the very fine hairs on the inside of the plates the water is pushed out by the force of the water coming behind it.

The last third of their body is pretty much muscle.  A thick tail-stalk and wide flukes that can propel a full grown Right Whale into a breach that clears the surface of the water with just three or four strokes of its tail.

The middle is fairly round.  That should come as no suprise as Right Whales have, beneath their skin, a blubber layer that is about a foot thick.  It was that blubber that was one of the reasons that the Right Whales were the right whales to hunt.  First, the blubber made the whale move and dive slowly so it was easier for the whalers to catch up to.  And, once you did kill it, the blubber made the carcass lighter or less dense than the water around it so it floated and could just be towed into the beach.  And, most importantly, the blubber, once melted (or rendered) down produced a huge amount of oil that could be used to make soap, candles, lubricants, and numerous other products.  Of course, most of the oil produced would be used to light up the oil lamps that lit homes and businesses prior to the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pa.  It’s use would further decline once Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and electrical service became more and more available.

The other reason Right Whales were the right whales to kill is that inside their mouths they have a ton of baleen.  At a time before the existence of plastics and spring steel, baleen was used to make everything out of that we would now make of those products.  Baleen was used to make the stays in women’s corsets, hairclips, combs, decorative pieces, buggy whips, umbrella stays, jewelry, and even the suspension springs for buggies.  A ton of baleen went a long way.  And was really profitable.  It was said that if you were outfitting for a whaling venture in 1870ish and during that venture harvested just one right whale, the profits from selling that right whale’s products would have paid for your three-year trip, leaving everything else you got as profit.  It would have paid the crew and the supplies and the maintenance of the boat.

It is precisely due to overhunting that Right Whales are today a critically endangered species.  Even in the 1930’s right whales were thought to be commercially extinct, even though open commercial whaling would continue on for another fifty years.  Simply, by 1930, it cost more to find and kill a right whale than you made from selling its products.  In short, it was no longer financially benefical to seek out and kill right whales.  That, alas, did not stop some whaling nations.  Most nations agreed that in order for the species to survive, the pressure from hunting needed to end and the International Whaling Commision (founded in the forties to regulate whaling so that it could endure as a commercial enterprise,essentially, forever) adopted the idea.  The whalers of the Soviet Union were not the only ones to ignore the ban, continuing to hunt right whales in both the north atlantic and southern hemisphere.  They were, however, the most blatant offenders, reporting the meat and products from right whales as those from finback whales, bryde’s whales, sei whales, and so forth.

We did come close to causing their extinction (like we did with the Atlantic Gray Whale).  Based on genetic work and whaling records, there was a time when there may have been just a hundred or a hundred and fifty North Atlantic Right Whales in existence.  Fortunately, nature was smarter than us and pockets of these animals were able to hide, including some pockets that managed to remain hidden until nearly the year 2000.

The good news is that the current population in the north atlantic might be as many as four hundred or four hundred and fifty.  The bad news is that when the pilgrims first came to Provincetown in November of 1620, it is thought (based on whaling records and journals from the likes of William Bradford) that there may have been as many as fifty thousand right whales utilizing the area around Cape Cod.

In the southern hemisphere, the population is thought to be maybe as many as three or four thousand.  It should be pointed out, however, that the Southern Right Whale and the Northern Right Whale are different, though closely related, species.

In the north pacific, Japonese whalers, who hide their commercial whaling by pretending to do science, have not reported seeing a right whale in fifty years.  The population might still be less that a hundred but stories still come from fishermen of sightings that could only be a right whale.