“Honestly, I don’t have the words,” says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, who has studied these animals since 1990. “It’s devastating. There’s now more people working on right whales than there are right whales left.”
How much death can a species tolerate? Researchers have estimated the number of North Atlantic right whales that could be killed every year while still maintaining a stable population. “That number is 0.9,” says Sarah Sharp, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Six have died this month alone. “The species cannot sustain these kinds of losses. We’re seriously worried that extinction is in the all-too-near future.”
Aside from Punctuation, it’s still unclear why the other five whales died. Wolverine’s necropsy was inconclusive, and the other four have yet to be examined. Natural causes are unlikely: None of these individuals were anywhere close to the species’ estimated life span of 80 to 100 years. And just last week, Sharp and her colleagues published a paper that analyzed the deaths of 70 North Atlantic right whales since 2003. In the 43 cases where the team could determine a cause of death, 38 were due to just two causes—ship strikes, and entanglements.
What a Grieving Orca Tells Us
Of Punctuation’s two known grandchildren, one was killed by a fishing line in 2000, and the other was last seen in 2011 with deep propeller cuts in his back. Another of her calves was killed by a ship in 2016. She herself had survived five separate entanglements and two ship strikes, before one more ended her life.
Ship strikes. Entanglements. There is something almost euphemistic about these terms that belies the horror of the wounds they inflict. Six of the whales Sharp studied had their skulls fractured by incoming ships. Three had their spines broken. Six were lacerated by propellers. One calf had its entire tail amputated. One whale survived her run-in with a propeller, but 14 years later, when she was pregnant, the presence of the fetus caused her scars to split, leading to a fatal infection.
Entanglements are no better. Over time, ropes slowly eat into flippers, tails, heads, and even the baleen plates inside the whales’ mouths. In one case, a line lacerated a whale’s blowhole, likely affecting its breathing or preventing it from keeping water out while it dove. Some of these deaths are painful. Others are painful and long. “This isn’t just a conservation issue. It’s an animal-welfare issue,” Sharp says. “Whales are out of sight, out of mind, and people aren’t seeing them suffer. It’s not a cat or dog walking down the street with these horrible injuries. But it’s important for people to understand how bad this is.”
The Lingering Curse That’s Killing Killer Whales
Slow, docile, and full of oily blubber, North Atlantic right whales made great targets for whalers, who hunted them to near-extinction by the early 20th century. After hunting was banned in 1937, the population stabilized, but never truly recovered. After a brief uptick, the whale population has started to decline again since 2010, perhaps because the whales have changed their behavior.