When I worked for the U.S. Coast Guard, I was introduced to this week’s endangered species, the northern right whale (photo from nationalgeographic.com). These majestic creatures are endangered throughout their range (NOAA/NMFS are primarily responsible for their protection in the U.S.), with a population number of 300-400 whales. Despite weighing nearly 70 tons, right whales survive by eating zooplankton, some of the smallest creatures in the sea. Right whales are baleen whales, which means they strain water through brush-like mouth parts, rather than teeth, to get the food they need. Right whales can live for over 50 years, first producing offspring at about 9-10 years. Their gestation period is roughly one year, and they usually only give birth to one calf at a time. According to the International Whaling Commission, right whales migrate up and down the U.S. east coast as they cycle through their four yearly activities: feeding, calving, nursery, and breeding. The most common threats to right whales are ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. The U.S. and 70 other countries no longer hunt whales, but Norway, Iceland, and Japan are three countries still pushing for commercial harvest of whales. On a personal note, my grandfather worked on a whaling ship once, after WWII. He was in the German navy and needed to find work after the war. My mother told me that after he returned from his trip on a whaling vessel, my grandfather said that if whales could scream, no one would ever hunt them again, but we do, because they can’t.
OK, so they’re majestic, but why should we really care about great whales in general and right whales in particular? As stated in Wildlife Heroes (Scardina, Flocken 2012), “The great whales are top-feeders in their ecosystems, controlling the populations of other creatures in their habitat by consuming massive amounts of species such as krill, copepods, plankton, and small fish every day. Additionally, whale watching generates more than $2 billion annually for coastal areas in more than 100 countries.”