A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf (Eubalaena glacialis) off the Atlantic coast of Florida. Photo by Brian Skerry/National Geograp
Trees lay down rings, the Earth tells its story in geological strata and now we’ve found the secret archive of the whale
‘It’s hard to believe that a 40-ton animal can get hidden. They’re sneaky.’ Charles ‘Stormy’ Mayo was scanning the sea from the deck of the R/V Shearwater searching for omens: a cloud of vapour, a patch of white water, a fluke. A few minutes earlier someone had spotted the first North Atlantic right whales of the day. But now they were down below and out of sight in 80 feet of murky seawater. Feeding, most likely.
Finally, a whale’s head emerged briefly on the sea surface. Then a slab of black back followed by the silhouette of flukes, signaling another deep dive. The appearance lasted maybe a second and a half. Groans from the crew, who did not quite manage to snap a photo that could help identify the whale, one of an early March influx that foretold another strong season in Cape Cod Bay. ‘There’s probably a bunch of whales here but it’s going to drive us crazy,’ Mayo chimed in. ‘I’m going to say there are probably three. It’s hard as hell to tell.’
The world’s rarest whales – Eubalaena glacialis – have been visiting the bay in late winter and early spring for as long as anyone can remember. But Mayo and his team at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown documented a puzzling uptick in recent years. Not just a few dozen animals, as was typical, but hundreds were showing up and, in one year, darn-near two-thirds of the world’s entire living population of around 500 North Atlantic right whales. ‘Right Whale Kingdom’ Mayo has called the bay. Simultaneously, the whales went AWOL from their usual summer feeding grounds 300 miles to the northeast in Canada’s Bay of Fundy and elsewhere, further mystifying researchers.
The Shearwater idled, waiting. The whales remained deep down, scooping up patches of zooplankton and straining out the seawater through the long strips of baleen in their mouths. Scooping and straining, scooping and straining. A change in the location of their preferred food is the most likely explanation for the whales’ wandering itinerary, Mayo said. Something is shifting out there in the ocean. As with so much else about their lives, only the whales know what it is.
Mayo co-founded CCS in 1976 and now directs its right whale research programme. For 30-odd years, he and scientists at a number of other institutions have amassed a remarkable body of evidence on these whales. They have employed time-tested observation methods from boats and planes to document the right whales’ demographics, movements, behaviour, biology and diet, and to catalogue sightings of individual whales. They’ve creatively investigated the whales’ genetics, health and sensory capabilities, all to figure out how to improve the critically endangered species’ chances of survival. Mayo told me that all this work, focused on a skimpy population, has made the North Atlantic right whale the most intensively researched whale on Earth, per individual animal. But whales are notoriously tricky to study, and many mysteries persist.
If the whale could speak, it could tell us about its experience as it plies thousands of ocean miles, mates, bears its calves, eats zooplankton, meets its challenges and, eventually, its end. It can’t, of course, but scientists have found that biochemical traces of some of its experiences persist in its body, even long after death. Just as geologists decode the history of the Earth from rocky strata, or dendrochronologists interpret past climactic conditions from tree rings, so biologists are now learning to read a whale’s life history as inscribed in its baleen. This anatomical oddity, part of a class of animal tissues that are emerging as tenacious biological recordkeepers, could reveal a monthly, even weekly, historical record of a whale’s life events stretching back as long as two decades. Just how much it will tell us remains to be seen…