Right whales get some protection from ships

The U.S. government has issued a new rule aimed at preventing ships from striking North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast. These right whales are among the most endangered animals in the world: Less than 400 exist. I recently visited a somewhat famous right whale to learn more about them.

The new rule mandates that ships slow down to a speed of 10 knots (11.5 mph) when they are within 20 nautical miles of shore near major ports — and at times of the year when the right whales are known to be present. North Atlantic right whales migrate along the East Coast from Florida to Nova Scotia and most reported right whale deaths in this area since 1970 have been caused by ship strikes. Commercial fishing gear also poses a threat to the whales, which can get tangled up in nets.

I met a right whale October 16 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Well, it was a model of the whale. Her name is Phoenix and she is whale No. 1705 in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. She was first sighted in 1987 and in 1997 survived a near-death experience after getting entangled in fishing gear — thus her name. Scientists use aerial photos and a technique called photogrammetry to measure the whales; in 2000, researchers estimated that Phoenix was 43 feet long and 13 feet wide. She probably weighs about 140,000 pounds. (That’s her model in the photo above.)

In contrast, the model is 45 feet long and weighs 2,300 pounds, but it is a scientifically accurate depiction of what Phoenix looks like.

How do they know which whale is Phoenix? All right whales have white bumps, called callosities, on the tops of their heads. These bumps are cornified skin eruptions that contain thousands of cyamids, a type of crustacean whale lice. Each right whale has a unique pattern of the white callosities, allowing scientists to identify — and name — individual whales.

As of this writing, Phoenix was last seen on July 28, 2008, in the Gulf of Maine, according to the museum. Her model is the centerpiece of the museum’s new Ocean Hall, an incredible exhibit that explores the entire ocean from top to bottom. The museum will keep track of Phoenix in the wild and provide updates about her. I bet she’s happy about the new ship-speed rule! (View my photos of the new Ocean Hall here.)

North Atlantic right whales are endangered because they were practically hunted to extinction. In the 1500s, Europeans hunted right and bowhead whales off the East Coast, taking tens of thousands of bowheads and an unknown number of rights, according to an article in the October issue of National Geographic. In the 1800s, New Englanders hunted down another 5,000 or so right whales. By the early 1900s, there might have only been a few dozen left. Now some 350 to 400 grace Atlantic waters.

Scientists say if we can prevent the deaths of two female right whales per year, the species could recover. The North Pacific right whale is in even more dire straits, with as few as 100 surviving. The Southern right whale is doing much better, with a population of 10,000.

The new ship speed rule goes into effect in December. What do you think of it and the plight of the right whales? Post your comments here!

October 20, 2008

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Dan Kulpinski

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