13. Chickadee Notes

Right Whale in New Brunswick 


Right WhaleOf all the large whales, probably none is closer to extinction than the Right Whale, Eubalaena glacialis. It is estimated that as few as 2,000 individuals may survive worldwide. With a top swimming speed of 14 kph Right Whales are slow swimmers. This, plus their rich oil reserves which cause them to float when dead, made the Right Whale the "right whale" for early whaling expeditions. The species was prized for its oil and baleen, the latter used for garment stiffeners, buggy whips, fishing rods, and umbrella ribs.

Right Whales occur in several geographically distinct populations in the seas of the northern and southern hemisphere. Of these populations the North Atlantic is one of the most endangered. An estimated 295 survive, of which just over 200 summer at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, off Grand Manan, New Brunswick, and off southern Nova Scotia.

In spite of protection Right Whale numbers in the western North Atlantic remain low.

Worldwide the species was decimated by commercial whaling activities that in North America began with the Basques off Newfoundland about 1530. It has been estimated that the Basque whale fishery removed 25,000-40,000 whales, mostly Right Whales, from Canadian waters between 1530 and 1610. As early as the mid 1700s, the Right Whale population in the North Atlantic was severely depleted. Estimates based on analysis of historical documents suggest that about 1,900 Right Whales once occupied the waters between the Bay of Fundy and Florida. By the time commercial whaling operations for this species ceased in this region in 1924 only 50 Right Whales may have remained.

Since 1935 the International Whaling Commission has banned hunting of the Right Whale worldwide. However, it is now known that Soviet whalers ignored this ban and killed at least 1,200 southern Right Whales over a period of several decades starting in the 1960s, although the information was concealed until recently. Furthermore, the species is still vulnerable to hunting by countries which are not members of the International Whaling Commission and therefore not bound by the hunting ban.

The Right Whale has been listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada since 1980 and is also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to which Canada is a signatory. Under the Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations the taking of Right Whales in Canadian waters is strictly prohibited. Regulations made under authority of the Fisheries Act also make it an offense to disturb any species of whale. Those who contravene these regulations are liable to a fine of up to $500,000 and 24 months in prison.

In spite of protection Right Whale numbers in the western North Atlantic remain low. The reasons remain unclear but may include mortality from ship collisions, entanglements with fishing gear, habitat degradation from chemical and noise pollution, or inbreeding depression as a result of small population size. Probably a combination of these factors is at work.

Natural History

Right Whales average 15 m in length and about 54,000 kg in weight, although individuals may be as heavy as 96,000 kg.

At sea the species is easily distinguished by the absence of a dorsal fin, whitish callosities on the head, a broad, smooth black back, and large spatulate flippers. Diving Right Whales often lift a distinctive, completely black tail fluke as they disappear.

The callosities are crusty, horny outgrowths of the skin distributed over the head in three general areas including above the eye, on the chin and lower lips, and from the blow-hole to the tip of the head. They may be as high as 10 cm and are heavily infested with whale lice, which give the growths their whitish or yellow-orange colour. The pattern of callosities on the head of each Right Whale is unique. This has made it possible to identify individual whales and so track their movements, study their behaviour and reproductive biology, and make estimates of population size.

In the Bay of Fundy the principal Right Whale prey species is the copepod...

Right Whales do not feed randomly, but seek out patches of copepods where their densities are highest. During the day this often means whales dive to depths of about 100 m to find large patches of copepods, feeding for 10-15 minutes before surfacing. In the Bay of Fundy the principal Right Whale prey species is the copepod Calanus finmarchius, a crustacean a mere 3 mm in total length.

Like all the large whales that visit the New Brunswick coast, the Right Whale is migratory. Many female Right Whales, especially those with calves or those about to give birth, spend the winter months in waters off Georgia and Florida, but where others go when they move south is as yet unknown. During their southern sojurn Right Whales fast, or at least feed very little, surviving on reserves of blubber accumulated during the summer feeding period. By April Right Whales are moving north, usually spending July into early November, on their New Brunswick and Nova Scotia feeding grounds.

In the Bay of Fundy, Right Whales are usually observed singly, in cow-calf pairs or in loose groups of less than six animals. Sometimes they are seen basking at the surface, or on occasion they may breach, their massive bodies coming clear of the water before they crash to the surface on their backs. The species is not particularly vocal, but belches and moans have been recorded and can sometimes be heard above the water.

New Brunswick waters appear to be a vital summer nursery area for the Right Whale. Cow-calf pairs are seen here each year and courtship behaviour, involving breaching, caressing with flukes, and tail slapping on the water has also been observed. Sometimes groups of males will jostle and manoeuvre for position with a female, although it is still unclear if females are receptive during their time in New Brunswick waters. Female Right Whales give birth to their first young at about 7.5 years of age, following a 13-14 month gestation period. It is on the wintering grounds that calves are born and their rearing begins, with the single young born between December and March. The calf will nurse for up to a year. It will be more than three years before the female gives birth again. Although an older calf-cow pair may migrate together or associate while on the feeding grounds, the calf is independent once weaned.

...one third of Right Whale deaths are caused by human activities.

Helping Out

The Right Whale is a coastal animal, occupying habitat within the continental shelf. This means that the species is more vulnerable to coastal marine pollution and collisions with vessel traffic than whales that frequent areas farther offshore. Ship collisions often prove fatal. More than 50% of North Atlantic Right Whales bear scars from entanglement in fishing gear, incidents that may also be fatal. It has been estimated that one-third of Right Whale deaths are caused by human activities. It is these deaths that may well be preventing recovery of the North Atlantic Right Whale population.

Keeping our coastal environment clean is important for all marine life. Never dispose of refuse overboard or leave rubbish on beaches. Eventually, it will be washed out to sea. Support efforts to control ocean dumping of municipal and industrial wastes. Those in the fishing industry should ensure that old or damaged netting is not left in the sea. Entangled whales should be released with care, but expert advice should be sought before any such release is attempted. Contact the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans or the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station at North Head, Grand Manan.

Many ship collisions with whales could be prevented if ships slowed down in or avoided areas where Right Whales congregate. Right Whale conservation zones have now been established in the Grand Manan and Roseway Basins. Canadian Coast Guard radio stations broadcast cautionary information concerning the presence of the animals in these areas.

Although whale watching opportunities have certainly increased public concern for sea mammals, observers are known to have sometimes inadvertently, or even purposely, harassed animals. It is important that whale watchers and tour operators follow established guidelines for observing marine mammals. Never approach closer than 100 m to a whale, or 300 m if the whale is sleeping, resting, or surface feeding.

Observers should stay well clear of courtship groups and breaching or otherwise active whales. If you are swimming or kayaking remember that whale watching regulations apply in these circumstances too.

Should the whale choose to come closer to you, be cautious. Keep the motor of your boat running, your echo sounder on, or make a tapping sound on the hull of your boat, including kayaks, so that the whale is aware of the location of your vessel. You should travel parallel to swimming whales and even if the purpose of your excursion is not whale-watching, be attentive and avoid collisions. Detailed guidelines for whale watching are updated annually and are available from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Further Reading

Brownell Jr., R.L., P.B. Best, and J.H. Prescott (eds). 1986. Right Whales: past and present status. International Whaling Commission. Special issue 10. 289 pp.

Crone, M.J. and S.D. Kraus (eds). 1990. Right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the western North Atlantic: a catalog of identified individuals. New England Aquarium, Boston, MA. 223 pp.

Gaskin, D. E. 1989. Status report on the Right Whale, Eubalaena glacialis. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Ottawa. 22 pp.

Katona, S.K., V. Roughgarden and D.T. Richardson. 1983. A field guide to the whales, porpoises and seals of the Gulf of Maine and eastern Canada, Cape Cod and Newfoundland. Scribner, New York. 255 pp.

Murison, L.D. and D.E. Gaskin. 1988. The distribution of Right Whales and zooplankton in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology 67: 1411-1420.

Kraus, S. D. 1990. Rates and potential causes of mortality in North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Mammal Science 6: 278-291.