A right whale and her calf. Right whales are more difficult to identify than humpbacks, so researchers rely on each animal’s callosity, the roughened skin patches on their heads, to track them. Photo: The New England Aquarium

By Karen Weintraub
2 October 2017

MOUNT DESERT ROCK, Maine (The New York Times) – From the top of the six-story lighthouse, water stretches beyond the horizon in every direction. A foghorn bleats twice at 22-second intervals, interrupting the endless chatter of herring gulls.

At least twice a day, beginning shortly after dawn, researchers climb steps and ladders and crawl through a modest glass doorway to scan the surrounding sea, looking for the distinctive spout of a whale.

This chunk of rock, about 25 nautical miles from Bar Harbor, is part of a global effort to track and learn more about one of the sea’s most majestic and endangered creatures. So far this year, the small number of sightings here have underscored the growing perils along the East Coast to both humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales.

This past summer, the numbers of humpback whales identified from the rock were abysmal — the team saw only eight instead of the usual dozens. Fifty-three humpbacks have died in the last 19 months, many after colliding with boats or fishing gear.

“Food is becoming more patchy and less reliable, so animals are moving around more,” said Scott Kraus, vice president and chief scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “The more you move around, the higher the chance of entanglements.”

The North Atlantic right whales, which prefer colder waters, are also on a changed course — with even more dire consequences. Fifteen of the animals have died since mid-April in a population that has now slipped to fewer than 450.

“We haven’t seen this level of mortality in right whales since we stopped whaling them” in coastal New England in the 1700s, said Dr. Kraus. [more]

As Seas Warm, Whales Face New Dangers

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