Grandmother, Grandfather Among Rare Whales Who've Died in 3 Weeks

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©. Punctuation and calf #3981 off the coast of Georgia in March 2009. Photo: New England Aquarium

Already suffering a perilous decline, the deaths of 4 North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month doesn't bode well for the species.

Pity the whales. These majestic gentle giants rule the seas, but they're having a rough go of it as we humans don't seem able to stay in our lane. We poison them with toxic algae blooms, fill them with plastic, tangle them up with fishing gear, and subject them to other assorted atrocities.

Now, in just the last three weeks, four North Atlantic right whale carcasses have been found floating in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence – the sea east of Quebec, west of Nova Scotia and north of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. For just the month of June alone, this represents a 1 percent drop in population for the most endangered species of large whale in the Atlantic, says Tony LaCasse, spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. The Aquarium oversees the remarkable North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, which keeps track of the population.

There is an estimated 411 North Atlantic right whale left on the planet. Growing up to 55 feet in length, these baleen whales migrate south to the Florida-Georgia border from New England and Canada in the early winter to give birth and nurse their calves before returning north in the spring.

The Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center has identified the four recently killed whales.

Wolverine, 9-year-old male

© Wolverine in 2011. Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project

Found dead on June 4, the 9-year-old male was named Wolverine because off three propeller cuts on his tail that brought to mind the three blades of Marvel's comic book character Wolverine.

In his first five years of life, he survived two minor entanglements and one moderate.

Amy Knowlton, a senior right whale scientist with the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said, “Wolverine endeared himself to the right whale research community as he was seen many times in all the main habitats from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and had endured both a vessel strike and three entanglements. The right whale community is saddened by the loss of Wolverine, especially at such a young age.”

Punctuation, female, at least 38 years old

© Punctuation and calf #3981 off the coast of Florida in February 2009. New England Aquarium

Found dead on June 20, the death of this reproductive grandmother is a major loss for the population. She was named for the dash- and comma-shaped scars on her head. "All right whale deaths hit hard, but this one is particularly devastating to the population—she was a reproductive female—and to the researchers who have studied her for nearly 40 years," notes the Aquarium.

She had her first calf in 1986, with eight calves in total. Daughter #1601 gave birth to a female #2701, while son #1981 fathered a son of his own, #3853.

The Aquarium recounts the family's tragic history:

"Like many whales in the population, Punctuation, her calves, and grand-calves have faced numerous challenges. Punctuation bore scars from five separate entanglements and two minor vessel strikes. In 2016, Punctuation’s calf #4681 was struck and killed by a ship. Both daughter #1601 and granddaughter #2701 suffered severe entanglements that lead to the death of #2701 in 2000 and the disappearance of #1601 in 2001. Punctuation’s grandson #3853 was seen in 2011 with deep propeller cuts to his back and is presumed dead."

Comet, male, at least 33 years old

comet whale
© Comet in the Bay of Fundy. Moira Brown, Anderson Cabot Center-New England Aquarium

Found dead on June 25, Comet was named for a long scar on his right side. Researchers had been observing this grandfather ever since his first sighting in 1985 in Cape Cod Bay – he was seen annually ever since since and in all major right whale habitats. In 2017, he was seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for the first time. The Aquarium notes:

"Comet was an old favorite. Over the 33 years we followed him, he was often seen in surface active groups with other right whales, and paternity analyses confirm that he had fathered female Catalog #2042 in 1990. In 2013, #2042 made him a grandfather when she gave birth to her first calf. Based on the scars around his peduncle and fluke, we also know that the whale had been involved in three minor entanglements in his life."

Catalog #3815, 11-year-old female

right whale
© #3815 in the Bay of Fundy. Moira Brown, Anderson Cabot Center-New England Aquarium

Number 3815 didn't have a moniker, but the 11-year-old female was just reaching sexual maturity, marking another tremendous loss to the population. She was the daughter of “Harmony.” Born in 2008, she was sighted annually, most often in Cape Cod Bay – like Comet, she was first observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017. She had been entangled in fishing gear on four separate occasions. The first three were minor entanglements, but in 2017 her encounter was more serious and led to substantial scarring around her peduncle, notes the Aquarium.

The state of the right whale

Right whales have had such a rough time of it. Named by whalers who identified them as the "right" whale to kill while hunting, these giant beauties were valued for their plentiful oil and baleen, which were used for corsets, buggy whips, and other things. During the whaling frenzies of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they came very close to extinction.

While hunting is no longer a threat, humans are still responsible for most of the untimely deaths of these whales.

"The bulk of right whale mortalities have been attributed to anthropomorphic causes – namely, vessel strike and entanglement in fishing gear," notes the Aquarium. A recent study found that between 2003 and 2018, of 43 right whales with a cause of death determined, nearly 90 percent died as a "direct result of human-induced trauma resulting from entanglement in line and vessel collisions."

For decades the Bay of Fundy, northeast of Maine and west of Nova Scotia, was the main mid- to late-summer feeding destination for much of the right whale population. But in recent years, with temperatures there rising at an alarming rate, copepods (the zooplankton that is the mainstay of their diet) have been scarce. "Wolverine and hundreds of other right whales eventually found copepod aggregations hundreds of miles to the north in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," explains the Aquarium. "However, regulations concerning ship traffic and fishing effort, which were in place for the waters south of the Canada’s Maritime Provinces and in New England, were not in place in this emerging habitat."

Hopefully this will be a very loud wake-up call to get some protections in order. These incredible creatures may have once been the "right" whale to hunt, but now they are clearly the right ones to save. Rest in peace, Wolverine, Punctuation, Comet, and #3815 – may your deaths not be in vain.