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Right Whales: The Underdogs of the Whale World

Back in the winter of 2015, I worked as an intern for the Center for Coastal Studies’ Right Whale Team. We spent many chilly days aboard the research vessel Shearwater, constantly scanning the horizon for the elusive Right Whale. On one particular day in early spring, we saw that distinct V-shaped blow. “Right Whale, 9 o’clock!”. As we made our way closer to the whale, through the binoculars we could tell that something wasn’t right. There appeared to be some sort of deformity on top of the whales’ head.

The day before our research cruise, we had learned of a vessel strike from the Coast Guard. A man had walked into the Coast Guard Station and claimed that he had unintentionally hit a whale with his boat. The man was deeply distressed and concerned for the well-being of the whale.

It is unfortunate that vessel strikes occur with whales. Often, these collisions can be avoided with a better understanding of our surroundings, but not in all cases. Accidents can and unfortunately do happen. This was the case on that particular day. The man had been travelling through Cape Cod Bay when a Right Whale, suddenly and unexpectedly, surfaced directly in front of him. He did his best to avoid the whale, but it was too close. Realizing what had happened, the man stopped and waited for the whale to resurface to see if it was okay. Unfortunately, he was unable to regain sight of the whale.

Back on board the R/V Shearwater, as we approached closer to the Right Whale, we began to realize that it was not a deformity that we were looking at, but fresh propeller scars from a very recent vessel strike. Being a propeller strike across her nares, (blow hole) we were highly concerned for Right Whale #3999’s well-being. Frankly, we were uncertain whether she would survive or not…

Fast-forward to May 1st of 2017… On board the Dolphin X for the 1:30 whale watch… An amazing multi-species trip was winding down as we rounded the back side of Race Point and approached Hatches Harbor. As I was processing data from the current trip, I heard the captain chirp, “Here’s another Right Whale by the Race”. I immediately stopped what I was doing to grab the camera and hop to the flybridge for a better look. I only had the time to snap two quick photos. It wasn’t until I zoomed in that I recognized those distinct scars… Once I realized who it was, I freaked out. Everything came together, it was her, she’s okay, she survived. A huge sense of relief rushed over me. I was beyond elated to see her alive and well, happily feeding in Cape Cod Bay.

As resilient and elusive as the North Atlantic Right Whale may be, as much as these incredibly beautiful creatures may seem to be capable of fending off the risks of the over-bearing human world that is drowning them out, they need help. These creatures cannot and will not survive without people like those reading this blog and those caring enough about these animals to spread the word about how to protect them. For the sake of the North Atlantic Right Whale, you and I need to work together in order to protect an incredible species that is more deserving than most people realize.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

-Baba Dioum-

EG#3999 photographed by CCS before the vessel strike
EG#3999 photographed by CCS after the vessel strike
EG#3999 photographed two years after the vessel strike

*Special thanks to the Center for Coastal Studies for allowing the use of these photos!


-Carolyn O’Connor

Dolphin Fleet Naturalist