The Right whale to save (not to kill!)

by Enrico Villa and Dania Tesei

An update on the species status from the time when, back in 2009, we were gifted with a sighting of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Pico.

I do not remember a single year spent in Pico in which we did not witness at least one WOW event. However, what 2009 brought to us was nothing short of a once-in-a-century gift.

In the late afternoon of January 5th 2009, the keen eyes of whale spotter Antero Soares saw, through his binoculars, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) off his Vigia in S. Mateus - Pico Island.
At that time, CW Azores only had one boat which, in January, was undergoing winter maintenance. Luckily, it did not take long for our Captain Michael Costa to arrange another boat and, as soon as he did that, we were back in business.

Twenty minutes after we left port, we were blessed by a breathtaking sunset with the rarest whale of the Northern Hemisphere.

North Atlantic right whale off Pico Island, Azores

North Atlantic right whale off Pico Island, Azores, Portugal

Unlike the Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), the North Atlantic right whale has never recovered from past whaling and it is currently categorised as CRITICALLY ENDANGERED in the IUCN Red List.

You know why they are called Right whales? They are slow swimmers and they float when dead. Therefore, they were the 'right' whales to kill for the whalers, which went at them with no moderation.
Pushed to near extinction by over 1000 years of senseless whaling, the population is still struggling despite the last 80 years of protection,

The scientists of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) just released their 2020 report card, with a best population estimate of only 356 North Atlantic right whales left at the end of 2019 .
This represents a substantial decrease in population size, when compared to the 2019 best estimate of 409 whales alive at the end of 2018.
To add insult to injury, there are just a few tens animals trying to escape extinction on the European side of the North Atlantic basin.

Almost all North Atlantic right whales alive now inhabit the Western side of the Atlantic. In winter, they breed in places like Florida and Georgia. Then they migrate towards their summer, high-latitude foraging grounds, where they feed on tiny, little crustaceans called copepods, which they filter with their very long baleen.

Being coastal whales, they constantly find themselves in waters full of shipping lanes, such as the Gulf of Maine (U.S.A.) and the Bay of Fundy (Canada). Hence, human activities impact the North Atlantic right whale more than most other whale species.

Right whale

The huge, paddle-like flipper (pectoral fin) of the North Atlantic right whale

While whaling is not a threat anymore for this species, there are new causes of mortality that still severely prevent the North Atlantic right whale population from recovering, such as collisions with commercial ships and entanglements in fixed fishing gear. Habitat degradation, acoustic pollution, biotoxins and chemical pollutants are also taking a toll.

With a population now below 400 individuals, after it reached almost 500 individuals around 2010, a major collective effort is clearly needed not to make Eubalaena glacialis join the long list of forever-lost species for which Homo sapiens must take full responsibility.

The North Atlantic right whale spotted in Pico in 2009 was a female, nicknamed Pico ever since. Well known to the researchers studying the North Atlantic right whale along East coast of North America, she has been sighted and photo-identified several times.
In 2009, we were told Pico had never been seen with a calf. Since then, she luckily had two babies!

Right whale

North Atlantic right whale side-fluking off Pico Island, Azores, Portugal

It is always good to conclude on a positive note, right? So here is another positive fact. It looks like in 2020 ship strikes took almost no toll on Eubalaena glacialis. This is almost certainly due to the decrease in ship traffic caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a word of caution is required, as restrictions also applied to scientists and may have prevented them from documenting more fatalities.

Is it true that one can always turn a negative into a positive? I don't know. I do know, however, that our negative can at least always turn into somebody else's positive.

Let's hope this very negative year for humanity can, at least, turn into a positive one for the mighty, gentle giant known as North Atlantic right whale.