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Scientists Monitor Most Endangered Whale Species - 2003-07-18

The most endangered whale on the planet is the North Atlantic Right Whale. There are only about 350 of them left in the world, and scientists from the New England Aquarium in Boston are familiar with each and every one of them. The whales spend the winter off the coasts of Georgia and northern Florida, giving birth. And then at this time of year, summer in the northern hemisphere, most can be found feeding and mating in the Bay of Fundy. That's the body of water between the state of Maine and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But every summer, dozens of whales don't show up in the Bay of Fundy, and scientists haven't been able to figure out where they go. They're looking beyond science for help.

There's a reason the North Atlantic Right Whale is the most endangered whale in the world. According to Amy Knowlton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium, for more than 900 years, the marine mammal was considered the right whale to hunt.

"They were the preferred whales for a variety of reasons," she said. "First is that they have a tremendous blubber layer, which was used to make oils, and for heating and lighting. And they also had long baleen plates, which were used like modern-day hard plastics for corsets and buggy whips and umbrella stays. And they were also very slow-moving and would float when they were killed, so they were easy to transport back to shore."

Right Whale hunting was banned under an international agreement in 1935. At the time, there were only about 100 animals left in the North Atlantic Ocean. Since then, the population has grown, but human activity is still killing the whales. That's why scientists are keeping track of them. They want to protect the animals from ship collisions and fishing net entanglements. They also want to establish a genetic database for the entire population, to see if inbreeding has had an adverse effect on the whales' birthrate. But scientists can't do that if they don't know where the animals are.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy were discovered, and not until the 1980s did scientists know about the calving grounds off the southeast coast of the United States. But Amy Knowlton says there has to be another, undiscovered feeding ground somewhere in the North Atlantic, because many of the whales born around Georgia and Florida do not spend their summers in the Bay of Fundy.

"It's roughly 100 animals, a third of the population, maybe a little less than that, that we really don't have any idea where they are," she explains. "We've seen them very occasionally, once or twice in off-shore areas, and then they're just unknown to us the rest of the years."

It's a mystery researchers at the New England Aquarium have been puzzling over for years. And then recently, scientists working with a different species of whale inadvertently spotted a couple of Right Whales in the waters between Iceland and Greenland. The discovery was quite a surprise, and researchers at the New England Aquarium were anxious to explore the region. But where to begin? The body of water separating the two arctic countries is huge, and who's to say the handful of whales spotted there weren't a fluke? So, in an effort to hone their search scientists based at the New England Aquarium in Boston went south.

About 100 kilometers to the historic town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, with its clapboard houses and narrow, cobblestone streets.

"The town of New Bedford grew out of the old village of Dartmouth, which was established in the mid-eighteenth century for the express purpose of hunting whales," points out Michael Dyer, a librarian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. He has studied and stored hundreds of logs from whaling ships, dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the hey-day of Right Whale hunting in America.

"Log books are generally speaking very boring things," he said. "However, when whales were encountered, or boats were lowered for whales, or whales are struck and killed and taken back to the boat, then the whaling operations are written into the log books. The latitude and longitude tell us, anybody who cares to look, where these animals were encountered and the degree of frequency. And so that becomes a tremendously important historical document for the study of the animals today."

Sure enough, when historians and scientists got together and started deliberately looking for information about Right Whale kills, they discovered that whalers often encountered the animals off the coast of Cape Farewell, at the southernmost tip of Greenland. That information helped convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to fund an expedition to the region. Six observers are up there now, braving icebergs, heavy winds, and some of the roughest waters in the world, in an effort to find the missing Right Whales. The expedition will undoubtedly be an adventure, even if the whales aren't found, says Tony LaCasse, a spokesperson for the New England Aquarium.

"The conditions there actually prompted the whalers to complain about what the waters were like," he said. "And if you can imagine, mid-nineteenth-century whalers were a pretty tough group, and if they didn't enjoy that, I think twenty-first-century urbanites will probably find it a little challenging."

But it will all be worth it, if the missing whales are found. Researchers suspect they'll discover that this particular group of whales enjoys a lower rate of mortality and injury than the group that summers in the Bay of Fundy. That's because there are hardly any people in the inhospitable waters off the coast of Cape Farewell. And researcher Amy Knowlton says if it could be verified, that sort of comparative data would be an important tool in the fight to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale. The data could be used to justify measures like one recently undertaken in Canada, where authorities are deliberately changing shipping lanes, to avoid collisions with the most endangered whale on the planet.