Right Whales Return to Former Killing Ground

May 26, 2009

The distinctive calls of North Atlantic right whales have been detected in a former whaling ground—a hopeful sign for the rare species, experts say.

The calls were recorded at Cape Farewell Ground, an ocean area off the southeastern tip of Greenland.

"There may be more whales out there than anybody knows about," said study leader David Mellinger of Oregon State University.

Right whales at Cape Farewell Ground were hunted to near extinction during the latter half of the 1800s. In the past 50 years, only two whales have been spotted in the area.

Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the known number of right whales worldwide hovers around 350.

From July 2007 to July 2008, underwater recording devices placed at Cape Farewell Ground by Mellinger's team picked up about 2,000 right whale calls. The team thinks at least three animals, and possibly more, made the sounds.

Most North Atlantic right whales feed off the coast of New England or Nova Scotia during the summer, so the Cape Farewell Ground whales may represent a group previously unknown to science, Mellinger said.

"It suggests they're reoccupying the area or that they've always been there," he said.

New Perils

Though whale hunting no longer occurs at Cape Farewell Ground, other perils could threaten any animals living there.

For instance, climate models predict that the North Pole could be ice-free within the next few decades.

This could create a new shipping route that cuts across the whales' migration paths. Ship strikes are a major cause of human-related deaths among right whales, according to Mellinger.

(Related: "High-Tech Sound Detectors to Warn Ships of Right Whales.")

"The threat is that, as the whales head south for the winter, they will go right across that shipping lane."

The research was presented last week at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

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