Rescuers Fail to Free Entangled Whale off U.S. Coast

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Hunted to Near-Extinction

Northern right whales are among the most endangered animals in the world. Only about 300 whales of this species are left.

According to a recent Congressional report on the status of the right whale, at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000 whales once lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean. They were hunted aggressively by whalers in the 19th century for their oil and bones, and got their common name from being known as the right whale to hunt.

After the total population was devastated as a result of whaling, the right whale was the first whale species to be given international protection, beginning in the 1930s.

The whales were always easy targets for whalers because they are slow swimmers who tend to feed near the surface. Now, the greatest danger they face is entanglement in fishing gear, such as fish weirs, deep sea lobster lines, gill nets, and ropes.

Collisions with vessels also reduce the number of right whales, some of whom feed near the surface in heavily traveled shipping lanes.

Last week, a female right whale calf was found belly up in the waters off Long Island, the victim of a boat propeller that had sliced fatally into her back.

Scientists say the limited reproduction of right whales—only 25 calves were born this year—means the loss of any individual member, especially a male of reproductive age, could affect recovery of the entire species.

Their dedication to freeing the whale seems to have given the scientists involved a strong sense of purpose. Said Mayo: "We are dealing with the last dregs of a population that lived along these shores happily by tens of thousands, [but were] decimated by my ancestors.

"We are down to the last act," he added, but "we can truly have an influence on that."

Watch continued television coverage of this event on National Geographic Today, only on the National Geographic Channel, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States. Click here to request it.

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