Home LATEST NEWS Scientists at the bedside of Atlantic right whales

Scientists at the bedside of Atlantic right whales

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The captain of the Shearwater cuts the engine and three marine biologists are busy taking notes and photos to identify and track the whales and their injuries. Essential work for the protection of this species of which there are only 336 individuals left according to experts.

Decimated by the now banned whalers, the right whale, or right whale, of the North Atlantic remains today under the threat of collisions with boats and fishing nets.

This species of large marine mammal – twenty meters long and weighing 70 tons – is even more in danger of extinction than tigers or black rhinos.

Christy Hudak observes whales through binoculars.

Marine biologist Christy Hudak observes whales aboard the research vessel Shearwater during a research expedition in Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Massachusetts.

Photo: Getty Images / JOSEPH PREZIOSO

Fourteen right whales died in a very short time, as they moved towards the Gulf of St. Lawrencewhere they rarely go and where crabbing has hit them hard, says Charles Mayo, founder of the Coastal Research Center.

Climate change seems to be the cause of this shift in their feeding area, due to a lack of sufficient prey.

And with right whales already so rare, even a handful of deaths could be enough to trigger a dangerous decline for the species.

This is very worrying, because their reproduction rate is very low, while the mortality rate is very highis moved Charles Mayo, who was part of the first team to free a whale from a net in which it had become entangled.

A woman is holding data sheets with images of whales.

Scientists use data sheets with images of whales to identify individuals sighted, using marks and scars.

Photo: Getty Images / JOSEPH PREZIOSO

These sea giants breed in spring and summer, before traveling up to 1000 miles south to give birth. This cycle, which normally lasts three years, currently spans an average of three to six years, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

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Specialists believe that behind this declining birth rate lies the stress suffered by females, in particular because of entanglements in ropes or even ocean noise caused by human activities.

These whales, the third largest in the marine kingdom, live as long as humans, sometimes up to a century.

Stocky and black, therefore, they have the particularity of not having a dorsal fin and of being adorned, on the head, with calluses covered with tiny crustaceans nicknamed whale liceliving in apparent symbiosis with their hosts.

Warned by their colleagues flying over the area, the researchers found new whales, including a calf playing to imitate its mother, then a group of cetaceans close together on the surface to socialize.

During this type of gathering, explains Christy Hudak, the whales roll on themselves touching others. The main purpose is to reproduce, but it is also about interacting with other right whales. It’s not just for sex.

A North Atlantic right whale.

A North Atlantic right whale off Plymouth, Massachusetts (on file).

Photo: Associated Press/Michael Dwyer

The sea trip will have allowed the observation of ten whales, including two mothers with their calves, and a socialization group. The survival of the species is far from certain, but researchers let themselves hope.

New technologies aim to reduce entanglement in fishing nets, whether by making the ropes more fragile or by designing traps that can be brought to the surface by remote control without a line.

Better acoustic detection of whales could also make it possible to react quickly to their presence by establishing limited speed zones for boats.

But it is vital, emphasizes Christy Hudak, to increase public awareness and buy-in to the protection of these incredible creatures.

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