IIt was a memorable end to a day in the Atlantic: a four-meter calf slipped alongside the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canary Islands. His incredible luck, however, would become clear hours later, when investigators from around the world clamored for more details after watching the 47-second video of the encounter online.
The divers had unknowingly encountered a North Atlantic right whale, one of the most threatened whales in the world. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the newborn calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles from the species’ usual locations along the eastern coast of Canada and the United States.
“When I realized what it was, my hair stood on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And suddenly this newborn calf appears in El Hierro ”.
More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any signs of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling erased all traces of the species in European waters.
A handful of sightings in European waters over the years have been linked to whales with a predilection for transatlantic voyages. But Aguilar was tempted by another possibility, though more unlikely. “It could suggest that the species could be beginning to recolonize the North Atlantic on the European and African side.”
The sighting was a brilliant moment for scientists tracking a species that has been in the limelight for a long time for the wrong reasons. Since 2017 Records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales they have been found dead or seriously injured, a devastating blow for a species that has been reduced to fewer than 400 members.
Most of these incidents have been related to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales appeared entangled in fishing lines, healing deep wounds from ship impacts or reeling from the noise of the ocean, he began to fear that the species would be the first great whale to go extinct in modern times.
It was a disconcerting turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers (right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas, and float when killed) the species was the First whale protected by law, in 1935.
Protected from commercial whaling, their numbers began to slowly increase, galvanizing the hope that the risk of extinction had been averted.
More optimism came from another species that had forged a remarkable comeback after up to 90% of its population was wiped out by whaling: humpback whales, whose numbers have now risen to the tens of thousands.
“Humpback whales are one of the most successful conservation stories of the 20th century,” says Chris Johnson of WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “It is not perfect, but they have recovered.”
Even at its lowest point, however, the world’s humpback whale population was they are believed to be in the thousands – far exceeding the estimated population than 356 North Atlantic right whales in 2019.
“Are the North Atlantic right whales the new humpback? I’d say yes, ”says Johnson. “In that we can be successful in this as well. But it’s going to take us all. There are important decisions that we must make in the coming years if we are going to have species like the North Atlantic right whale around. “
Essential to saving these whales are the boats that sail the routes of the east coast of North America, as well as the fishermen who harvest their waters, rich in lobsters and snow crabs. Data from US officials suggests that more than 85% of right whales, They can reach the length of a city bus and weigh up to 70 tons, they have become entangled in fishing gear at least once.
Mitigation measures, introduced after right whales were found trapped in hundreds of meters of heavy ropes or dragging traps weighing up to 60kg, have sometimes done so. provoked protests of fishing communities who see these movements as an attack on their livelihoods.
As a result, the debate over how best to protect whales has often dragged on, wasting precious time for a species on the brink of extinction. “We can’t lose a single whale a year right now,” says Heather Pettis, a scientist at the New England Aquarium, Boston, US “They really need immediate action.”
The push for protections has been further complicated by a warming ocean. “This is climate change in action,” says Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “The most threatened large whale in the North Atlantic has to go further to find food because the Gulf of Maine is warming.”
This foraging has been blamed for the greater presence of the whale in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, an area teeming with boat traffic. It’s a bitter twist on a previous conservation victory: in 2003, sea lanes were diverted into the nearby Bay of Fundy to avoid an important area for whales.
“When we think of climate change, we think of things like melting glaciers over 100 years,” says Brown. “This has happened in a decade. The pace is phenomenal. “
The overlapping threats facing whales hint at the complexity of the conservation issues involved, four decades after a surge of support pushed the International Whaling Commission to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling, says Willie Mackenzie of Greenpeace.
“Shooting them directly in the head with a harpoon is obviously a bad thing,” says Mackenzie. But if we are talking about ship collisions or fishing interactions, what is the answer? Can’t get that many fish? Shouldn’t you buy so many things? It’s not a straightforward cause and effect thing that people can understand very simply. “
He attributes some of the success of the previous campaign to the images, be it the bloody horror of commercial whaling captured by Greenpeace, or the breathtaking stunts of the whales. The same strategy is now complicated by the fact that many of the species most at risk today are more timid and less well known.
“There’s a PR job here and humpback whales are very good at it and right whales are not so good,” he says, citing images of humpback whales spectacularly leaping out of the water or tapping their tails on the surface. “If you want to show people the majesty of a whale, that’s the image you have to show them because they will not be very excited about a black lump in the ocean or a very distant image of something that goes deep.”
Around the Canary Islands, more than six weeks after the North Atlantic right whale was sighted, researchers continue to search for clues. “Right now, there is not much hope that it will show up again,” Aguilar says. “A newborn of that age depends on the mother. They may have met and are still in the area. But if she is not with her mother yet and has not been adopted by another whale, then she has died ”.
Still, he is quick to characterize the sighting as a “historic moment” for the region. “It was a moment that gave me chills and made me want to cry,” he says. “The appearance of a whale considered extinct in the Canary Islands is proof that nature, if we take care of it, has an enormous capacity for recovery.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism