An illustration of a whale covered in bruises and rope
Tatsuro Kiuchi

It’s Tough Being a Right Whale These Days

Life can be hell for giants of the deep—but does it have to be?

We might begin with a way of killing a whale that next to no one today would find acceptable. In the autumn of 1385, far enough back in time that we tend to think of humans then and now almost as different species, a whale beached near the southern tip of Greenland. Among the Norse settlers who gathered around the animal was a recent arrival named Björn Einarsson, an Icelandic chieftain who, on a return trip from Norway, had found his home country bound in its namesake ice and was forced to carry on. With winter on the horizon, the newcomers had been struggling to procure enough food.

Einarsson has left the impression across six centuries of a man who expects to have good luck. Sure enough, as the settlers butchered the whale, they found a spearhead embedded in its flesh. By Norse law, fully half the whale belonged to whomever had struck the ultimately fatal blow, and Einarsson recognized the spearhead’s mark. It belonged to Ólafur Ísfirðingur, who lived in the same district of Iceland as Einarsson himself. Ísfirðingur obviously could not be reached in a timely manner (a typical law of the era spells out that the finder of a dead whale must alert the hunter if he can “travel there twice on the day concerned, if he leaves early in the morning”), which meant that Einarsson could claim the “shooter’s share” of the whale meat on a promise to pay his neighbor later. We can imagine much rejoicing among the misplaced sailors.

Between the lines, we can also read snatches of the whale’s story, which is considerably more of a downer. Early Norse whaling mainly involved the spear-drift technique: spear a whale, then hope that it drifts ashore nearby so that you can get your share. Unfortunately, the process could be a slow one. The whale that put food on Einarsson’s table in late-autumn Greenland had most likely been speared during the Icelandic summer. When the end came, it had swum about a thousand miles across several months, in pain, terribly injured, slowly dying.

Spear-drift whaling was eventually replaced by more efficient means of killing whales. Along the way, we grew distant enough from stranded-in-Greenland-variety food desperation to agree that wounding an animal and leaving it to die across hours, let alone months, is not okay. That troublesome vegan at the dinner party would agree, but so, too, would members of the NRA, whose hunter’s code of ethics calls on them to “insure clean, sportsmanlike kills.”

In acknowledging the brutality of certain hunting practices, we drew a baseline of human responsibility for the welfare of wild animals: We should not cause them undue suffering. In that, there has been plenty of room for controversy (a meat-is-murder activist, a leg-hold trapper, and a catch-and-release fly fisherman walk into a bar ...). Still, the baseline matters. It matters more and more, in fact, because everyday life for a growing roster of wild creatures has become so unpleasant, on our watch and by our hands, that their suffering calls for consideration by reasonable people. One of those animals happens to be a kind of whale, the North Atlantic right whale, which lives along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. As one researcher put it: “We’re not actually going out and sticking them with a piece of steel anymore. We’re just ruining their lives.”

Americans have trouble seeing right whales, and not because the leviathans live in remote places. I recently spent a day dipping in and out of every stretch of public seashore I could find along the Massachusetts coast between Boston and Cape Cod. An endangered species, North Atlantic right whales number about 450 in total, but one-quarter of the entire population had made the seasonal pilgrimage to Cape Cod Bay, and right whales spouted at every stop. (There are three species of right whale, separated by vast tracts of ocean; here, “right whale” refers to the North Atlantic variety unless otherwise noted.)

Would-be whale watchers knew where to go: There’s an app. Yet the whales were easy to miss, low black hummocks among low black waves. Right whales don’t plunge forward, arcing and diving; they plug along the surface, back and forth in boustrophedon style, then vanish for long periods. Watching people watch for whales without the patience for their subtle presence, and with genuine disappointment that they weren’t more showy and exciting, made the shore feel like a dividing line between utterly different worlds.

That division is an illusion, the marine biologist Scott Kraus told me when we met in his Boston waterfront office, just 30 miles of abominable traffic away. Kraus, the vice president for research at the New England Aquarium, pulled up an image on his computer screen of the U.S. East Coast, covered with a matrix of lines that crowded into the Atlantic. “That’s the shipping,” Kraus said. “Then we add fishing.” He clicked on another slide, which laid a new matrix on top of the previous one. And on he went, adding undersea pipelines and cables, coastal wind-energy fields, and military operations until the image looked like a quintuple-exposure photograph of a map of Manhattan. If you layered in the general public’s use of the ocean, he said, “I can’t even imagine. It would blow it out.”

Nearly a decade ago, Kraus nicknamed the right whale the “urban whale.” The Atlantic coast of North America is visible by night from space as a cluster of light whose intensity is rivaled only by parts of Western Europe. That its influence extends into the ocean should surprise no one, and yet it does. “We keep looking to it as a way to expand civilization,” said Kraus. “You know, ‘The whole ocean is empty there. We can do anything!’”

Another convenient delusion is our tendency to see endangered species as evolution’s snowflakes: unique expressions of life’s diversity, but also high maintenance and generally unable to roll with the punches. It’s hard to make this case with right whales. They evolved at least 4 million years ago, twice as deep in the past as our own genus. An adult may weigh 80 tons and reach 45 feet in length, fully a quarter of it accounted for by a great anvil of a head and a sweeping, downturned mouth. Individuals can live 100 years and possibly many more—few have the opportunity to find out.

They take their name from having been the “right” whale to hunt, because of the value of their blubber and baleen, and as such, they’d already been driven to rarity by the time of the American Revolution. Yet they do not die easy. The intentional killing of right whales was banned in 1935, but in March of that year, it took a group of fishermen—apparently not up to speed on international law—six hours, seven hand-thrown harpoons, and 150 rifle rounds to kill a 32-foot calf off Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

If right whales are threatened with extinction, it’s not from a lack of grit. It’s because their home—which spans 2,000 miles of coastline from southern Canada to northern Florida and cannot be described as small or niche—is one of the most human-modified and influenced regions on Earth. With due respect to Kraus, the North Atlantic right whale is not so much the urban whale as the Anthropocene whale.

So-called “whale huggers” face an unusual problem when it comes to the species’ welfare: Stories of right-whale suffering are often so awful that no one wants to hear them. (“Inevitably you put your head inside the head of the whale and say, ‘What’s this feel like?’ And it’s not a good place to be,” said one.) Fortunately, a suite of less-awful, more-bearable ills is also available for discussion. We can save the worst for later.

One of the first people to start thinking about how we make whales miserable, as opposed to how we kill them, was the marine-acoustics scientist Chris Clark, now retired as a graduate professor of Cornell University. In the 1990s, with Cold War tensions subsiding, Clark was selected as the U.S. Navy’s marine-mammal scientist.

Using the Navy’s underwater listening posts, he was able to tune in to singing fin whales—second only to the blue whale in size—across a patch of sea larger than Oregon. In a data visualization he later created, the singing whales wink on and off: hotspots that arise, spread their sonic glow, and fade. Then enormous flares ripple across the entire space. That’s the acoustic imprint of a seismic air gun, used to probe for oil and gas deposits under the seafloor. “This was an epiphany,” Clark said. He had witnessed the way that human-made sounds could overwhelm, at enormous scales, whales’ ability to hear and be heard in the ocean.

I asked for his opinion about what day-to-day life is like for right whales now, two decades later. “Acoustic hell,” Clark replied. “Humans can’t comprehend the magnitude of the insult that we pour into the ocean.” While no one can say how an animal experiences its world, there are clues that Clark is correct. When the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, researchers from the New England Aquarium happened to be in the Bay of Fundy, just across the U.S. border into Canada, testing right-whale feces for stress hormones. Over the following days, boat traffic abruptly dropped off. The scientists were struck by how clearly they could hear whale calls through their equipment, as though they’d been standing beside a freeway that fell silent and could suddenly hear birdsong. The whale stress levels measured in those quiet waters were the lowest by far that were recorded across four summers of sampling.

Noise is what biologists refer to as a “sublethal” impact, meaning it doesn’t directly cause death. The list of sub-lethal impacts has grown long, however. Right whales have the highest prevalence of infection with Giardia and Cryptosporidium, mainly from sewage and agricultural manure runoff, ever recorded in any mammal. In humans, these cause the diseases known as beaver fever and crypto, respectively, which involve debilitating digestive complaints. No one knows what problems, if any, they cause in right whales.

The whales are similarly exposed to an alphabet soup of chemicals (DDT, PCBs, PAHs, etc.), oil and gas, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides—all the effluvia of civilization. Then there are blooms of red tide and other toxic algae, which can cause paralysis and death in humans, and are increasingly common. One study found paralytic shellfish poisoning in the feces of all 16 right whales it sampled. Again, no one can say what effect these pollutants might be having on right whales.

We do know that it is getting harder for them to find food. Right whales’ diet is composed mainly of flea-like plankton called copepods, a predator-to-prey size ratio comparable to you or I meeting our daily needs by eating specks of dust. We have approximately zero idea how giant whales find tiny plankton in an enormous ocean, but we do know that the distribution of copepods has become even more unpredictable as the climate changes.

It’s worth pointing out here that right whales seem to be at least as capable of feeling as other animals that we care about (dogs, cats, horses, etc.). They respond—sometimes with irritation—even to being gently touched with a pole at the base of their tail by researchers. In one such case, a whale promptly sank beneath the waves, then rose, belly up, to lift the scientists’ boat out of the water, rock it back and forth (one crew member tumbled into the ocean), and set the vessel back down before going about its business. You don’t need a Ph.D. in biology to get the message the whale was sending, or to admire its self-restraint.

You also don’t need to be an expert to interpret the fact that whales off Iceland appear to be more common where whaling is permitted (but rare) than within the near-shore protected zone where whale-watching boats are everywhere. Whales sleep differently than we do (they put one hemisphere of their brain to sleep at a time), and yet we can bet, as researchers do, that a noisy, busy, polluted ocean is a more challenging place to sleep than the ocean as it used to be, the ocean that some whales are old enough to still remember.

Tatsuro Kiuchi

“These whales are suffering from the effects of multiple cumulative impacts,” said Rosalind Rolland, a senior scientist at New England Aquarium. She points to the stark contrast between North Atlantic right whales and Southern right whales, a closely related species that lives in a far less humanized environment. Rolland once traveled to the Auckland Islands, 300 miles south of New Zealand’s mainland, to do a visual health assessment on Southern right whales. “They were fat, they were happy, they had no skin lesions, they were curious. It was dealing with a completely different animal,” she told me.

As you’ve probably guessed, North Atlantic right whales don’t look quite so good. The health of every class of right whale—male and female, young and old—has visibly worsened over the past three decades. They are thinner, more heavily infested with whale lice, more marked by lesions and scars. The research that showed this, led by Rolland, also found that the more sickly a female right whale’s appearance, the less likely that she would successfully give birth to a calf.

For an endangered species, a lack of births is a kind of death, and this year, for the first time since reliable record-keeping began nearly 30 years ago, no calves at all were born in the right-whale population. The animals’ welfare may now be so poor, their suffering so serious, that sublethal impacts have turned lethal.

The traditional view of animal welfare has been that we’re responsible for animals under our care—pets, livestock, zoo animals, laboratory animals. Concerns about wild-animal welfare have typically ended at the question of what we put them through as we kill them.

That began to change in the 1990s. In Britain, some members of London’s Institute of Zoology had come to recognize the Anthropocene concept, though the term would not enter popular usage until the 21st century. “Much of the Earth’s surface is now under human control, partial control, or influence, and this inevitably often affects the fate of wild animals,” three of them wrote in a pioneering 1994 paper. “We have a degree of responsibility for their welfare.”

A quarter-century later, Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in environmental studies and animal studies at New York University, is more emphatic. “Is there wild-animal suffering anymore? I mean, are there wild animals? Is there suffering in the wild, or are there just human-altered animals suffering from human-caused harms?”

Like any emerging school of thought, wild-animal welfare makes visible what was previously overlooked, or ignored. For example, you might reasonably imagine that clearing wild-animal habitats for houses, or farms, or auto malls, involves a respectable trade-off: human needs vs. animal inconvenience. A 2017 study of land clearing in Australia addresses what is actually involved. Turns out the animals do not simply pack their bags and make a fresh start somewhere new. “The clear scientific consensus is that most, and in some cases all, of the individuals present at a site will die as a consequence of that vegetation being removed, either immediately or in a period of days to months afterward,” the authors write.

They lay out the suffering in exhaustive detail: Animals are crushed, impaled, or lacerated. Some are buried alive. They endure internal bleeding, broken bones, spinal damage, eye injuries, head injuries. Limbs are lost. “Degloving”—partial skinning, alive—occurs. Those that flee their homes (many are surprisingly reluctant to do so) are often run over on nearby roads, entangled in fences, die of exposure, or are made easy prey for predators. You don’t really want to hear this, but tree-dwelling species may cower in their holes up to the moment they pass through the sawmill or the wood-chipping machine. You don’t really want to hear that koala bears may starve when land is cleared—“an issue that has surprisingly not generated much discussion.” By the authors’ estimate, 50 million mammals, birds, and reptiles ultimately die each year due to land clearing in two Australian states alone.

Wild-animal welfare has remained out of mind for so long partly because the harms involved are often indirect or unintentional—no one chose to disrupt the right whales’ food supply, or give them chronic stress disorders. The sheer scale of potential responsibility also encourages willful blindness. David Fraser, the research chair in animal welfare at the University of British Columbia, calls the hurt we heap on wildlife through our day-to-day machinations “the huge, neglected issue of the century.” So far, wild-animal welfare has largely remained an academic concern, with some thinkers inevitably proposing that we become what one called “compassionate gods,” knitting sweaters for elk during deadly cold snaps and preparing meat substitutes for predators so that they, too, can go vegan. But the argument that humans should prevent all of life’s cruelties to other species is distinct from the one that suggests we have at least some responsibility for suffering that we cause.

The questions involved are large, and numerous. Consider the pied flycatcher, a European songbird that resembles a miniaturized penguin. In the past, the flycatcher’s migration and nesting season coincided with the spring outbreak of caterpillars that the birds feed to their young. Due to climate change, peak caterpillar has been taking place earlier and earlier across the past 20 years, while the flycatchers show no sign of moving up their migration. Research in the Netherlands found that where the caterpillar cycle has shifted, pied flycatcher populations have declined by 90 percent. Given that fear, hunger, anxiety, and so on normally occur in nature, at what point does our own contribution of misery trigger a duty of care? How capable of suffering is a pied flycatcher, anyway? Does the fact that the species is not yet in danger of extinction ease the situation’s moral urgency? Are we called upon to find some boots-on-the-ground solution—there isn’t an obvious one—to flycatcher famine, or just chalk it up as another reminder of the ethical burden of climate change as a whole?

“The point is not to overwhelm people and make them feel completely despondent or guilty. The point is to do what we can,” said Jacquet. “I don’t think it’s going to be solved overnight, but I hope that the moral compass moves a bit.”

We might start with those cases that most clearly link wild-animal suffering to species endangerment, and to human responsibility. Behold the right whale: at least moderately intelligent, and plainly able to experience physical and psychological pain. Nearing extinction, and dependent on a habitat so radically altered by human actions that it has been described by fisheries scientists as “arguably domesticated.” And, lest we forget, probably suffering every damned day.

We don’t only harm right whales indirectly, of course. We also kill them outright. Half of known right-whale deaths since the 1980s have direct human causes, and that number does not include whales whose bodies are never found or are found in such a state of decomposition that no cause of death can be determined. The true percentage is certainly higher, and rising.

There are two main ways that we kill right whales: by running them over with boats (known as “ship strike”), and through entanglement in fishing gear. From the traditional conservation perspective, which is mainly concerned with the survival of species, ship strike and entanglement are comparable crises: Both leave rare whales equally dead. Introduce the idea of wild-animal welfare, and there is, unfortunately, more to the story.

It isn’t clear why whales fail to avoid being hit by boats, but ship strike is probably no more inexplicable than the fact that people get run over by cars: Suddenly, a large object looms out of the background of everyday life to smite you. The good news is that regulators have had some success moving shipping lanes and applying vessel-speed restrictions in parts of right-whale habitat. Doing so, however, does little to address whales’ welfare—the “acoustic hell,” the sublethally lethal ocean. In this case, conservation that fails to consider welfare is paradoxical. We can end up saving whales only to leave them swimming in a sea of pain.

At least victims of ship strike usually don’t suffer a lot: Death comes swiftly. Now consider the ways that frontline wildlife veterinarians described to me the results of entanglement:

“The injuries are some of the worst we’ve seen to any animal.”

“One of the grossest abuses of wild-animal sensibility in the modern world.”

“Barbaric in the extreme.”

“If this was an entangled cow that you drove past on your way to work, wrapped up in line and with line cutting into it—no one would be able to drive by.”

I have been holding back, as I said I would, from the darkest reaches of this story. But let me now make at least one case of deepest right-whale suffering unavoidable. The whale in question never received one of the affable names applied to well-known individuals, such as Kleenex, or Churchill, or Porter. Instead, it was only ever known by its number in a long-standing photo-identification catalogue: #2030.

Read a media report of a whale bound up in ropes or nets and you are likely to think that this is one unlucky whale, akin to the sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose. In fact, entanglement is not rare or even unusual for right whales: It is a constant. 85 percent of them have scars from past entanglements, as many as a quarter may acquire new scars in any given year, and both numbers seem to be increasing.

Since 2010, nearly 40 percent of known right-whale deaths—15 whales in total—have been caused by entanglement in fishing gear. It’s the leading cause of mortality. (Remember that many losses go unrecorded; the real figure may be twice as high.) Once again, it’s not like the whales are somehow hopelessly maladaptive—the fraction that dies from entanglements is minuscule compared to the number of entanglements overall. It’s just that ropes and fishing gear are nearly unavoidable.

Across large spans of right-whale habitat, lobster and crab fishing is so intensive that even some fishers compare it to farming. There can be so many buoys marking underwater lobster-pot lines that a boat at the surface can’t travel in a straight line—as one Cape Cod fisherman put it to me, “It’s ridiculous. There’s pots everywhere. You can’t move.” “Ropeless” crab and lobster pots already exist that could replace vertical lines in the water with buoys that release from the seafloor only when the fishers come to retrieve their catch. But such solutions involve costs for the industry, which in turn are passed along to the consumer. We prefer our seafood to come at a reasonable price.

In 1999, right whale #2030 was seen at Cultivator Shoal, about a hundred miles east of Cape Cod. Just 12 years old but already 45 feet in length, she was entangled in a gill net and its rigging, which she had picked up sometime earlier. Perhaps she had run into the gear at night, or while diving in dark water, or simply because she was focused on other things. In any case, she responded as many right whales do, spinning in an effort to free herself. She ended up bound in loops of rope and tightly wound netting. She looked something like a draft horse in heavy harness.

The next time #2030 was spotted, she was in the Bay of Fundy. A 10-day effort to cut away the fishing gear still left her with tight coils around her flippers connected by one taut line across her back and two under her belly. On the 11th day she left the bay and vanished into open ocean. She was later found floating, dead, off Cape May, New Jersey.

Michael Moore was involved in the post-mortem. A senior marine biologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and veterinarian for the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s marine-mammal rescue and research team, Moore had started his career on Icelandic whale boats in 1983, where he researched the efficacy of explosive harpoons. He found they were very efficient. The typical time to death was usually no more than a few minutes.

That finding stuck with him when he began, in 1998, to examine the bodies of entangled right whales. “I’ve always had this really gut sense of horror in terms of what these animals go through,” he told me. Each case is broadly similar, but uniquely awful in the details. The rope across #2030’s back had cut down through six inches of blubber to the flesh below, then started to work its way along her body. In the whaling days, the removal of a dead whale’s blubber came to be called flensing. Whale #2030 had been flensed alive. She had been “degloved.” By the time she died, she had an open-wound saddle across her back that measured more than four feet wide.

Her cause of death was listed as “massive traumatic injury.” Starvation played a part, too. Later tests estimated that the gear hanging off #2030 had increased her body’s drag through the water by 161 percent, costing her more energy than she was able to take in as food. As her condition deteriorated, so many orange and white whale lice spread over her body that she appeared to have turned a different color.

Whale #2030’s skeleton hangs in the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York. If you know what to look for, you can see where funky, cauliflowery bone growths arose in the body’s attempt to protect itself from its bonds. You can see smooth grooves worn into the joints and bones of its flippers, where the fishing ropes sawed back and forth.

Whale #2030 was first seen entangled on May 10, 1999, and was found dead on October 20 that year. When the end came, she had swum about a thousand miles across several months, in pain, terribly injured, slowly dying. In other words, her death was every bit as terrible as that of the spear-drift whale found by Norse settlers in Greenland in 1385, far enough back in time that we tend to think of humans then and now almost as different species.