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Right Whales Get Boost from U.S. Navy

Sailors nearly did the right whale in, and it may be sailors who help pull it back from extinction.


North Atlantic Right Whales spend the majority of their summers off the Canada and New England coastlines.


Technology developed under the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) has enabled researchers to track a female Northern right whale for the first time from her feeding grounds off the coast of Canada to her birthing grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida.

The whale, named Piper by researchers, was tagged in late July. Northern right whales are considered the most endangered large whale species in the world. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 300 left, only about 50 of them breeding females.

“If changes in human-caused mortality levels are not made—and soon—the right whale will be extinct in 100 years,” says Bruce Mate, an oceanographer at Oregon State University. “And there isn’t a lot of time. In 20 years things will have turned the corner and it will be a downward spiral we can’t stop.”

Mate developed the satellite tracking device under an ONR grant.

Brink of Extinction

The right whale was so-named by whalers who considered them the right whales to catch because they were slow moving, had lots of blubber, and floated when dead. Hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 1900s, right whales came under international protection in 1935.

Despite legal protection and sanctuary designations, the population is not recovering. Scientists estimate that at least one-third of right whale mortality is caused by human activities, primarily ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Whale researchers have an extensive photographic record of the right whales that summer off the coast of Canada. Two-thirds of the animals show scars and markings from collisions and entanglement.

The whales’ reproductive rate is also down; only one calf was spotted last year during the birthing season. Scientists suspect a reduction to their food supply and resulting poor nutrition may be the problem.

Mysterious Giants of the Sea

Despite their size—right whales can grow to 56 feet (17 meters) and weigh up to 70 tons—remarkably little is known about them. Researchers aren’t even sure where most of them spend their winters.

“Females that are going to calve go to the Georgia and Florida coast,” says Mate. “That leaves 85 to 90 percent of the whales that go somewhere else completely unknown to us. In addition, the calves that have been born in the last three years were born almost exclusively to females who have never been seen in the Bay of Fundy.”

The Bay of Fundy, off the coast of Canada, is the main summer feeding ground for right whales.

Navy Sails In

“Better technology was needed, and this is an area where ONR can help out,” says Bob Gisiner, ONR program manager. “In earlier years the longest tag life might have been somewhere in the range of 60 days. Now Bruce (Mate) regularly gets one or two whales with tags that last for 180 days. The ultimate goal is one year.”

“The problem isn’t battery life; it’s robustness of the tag. These whales really put it through a lot.”

In addition to providing more information on the way of life of the whales, information from the tagging project will also be used by the Emergency Warning System to warn ships when whales have been spotted and thus help avoid ship/whale collisions. The EWS uses spotters on shore, on ships, and in aircraft to track right whales on the breeding grounds.

“Piper traveled through all the major shipping channels—Boston, New York, Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake,” says Mate. “All areas that are heavily impacted by humans.”

“We’re not going to be able to move the whales,” says Mate. “What we’re hoping is that if we can understand what their needs are we can make some small changes in human activities that will make a difference to the survival of future generations.”

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More Information

Right whales were so-named by whalers who considered them the right whales to hunt: they were slow moving, had lots of blubber, and floated when dead.

Hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 1900s, they came under international protection in 1935 under a League of Nations treaty.

Today scientists estimate that there are fewer than 300 right whales left in the Atlantic; only 50 of them breeding age females.

The U.S. Navy”s Office of Naval Research has developed a satellite tag that researchers hope will help answer some questions about the way of life of the massive black whales.

Tagging Whales
The satellite tags developed by whale researcher Bruce Mate are about the size of two “C” batteries, which are implanted in the whale’s blubber layer. A small external antenna sends signals to ARGOS satellites passing miles overhead.

The ARGOS satellites relayed the whale’s position to Dr. Mate and his colleagues on the shore as Piper made her way past Cape Cod and Long Island, past Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, and on south past Cape Hatteras and Savannah, at a steady pace of about 3 miles (5 kilometers) an hour until, 130 days later, she came within range of the Early Warning System spotter aircraft.

On December 19, Early Warning System aircraft, guided by the satellite tag position data, found Piper as she entered the Northern Right Whale Winter Critical Habitat Area.