The right stuff. Half of the world’s endangered North Atlantic right whales gather off Provincetown, Massachusetts. April, 2011.
Something wonderful, unprecedented, and magnificent is happening as I write (April 23, 2011) off the holiday beaches of Provincetown and Truro, Massachusetts. It’s a convention… no, not a political convention (though this story has a political aspect). And it’s not strictly business either, though business will most surely be generated.
No, it’s a story about our favorite mammal… the whale, specifically the North Atlantic right whales, who have gathered in unheard of numbers to gorge themselves on an abundance of the zooplankton they love. It seems this year has produced a bumper crop. And so 200 of these creatures we all champion have come to Massachusetts; just a little less than half their total number. So numerous are they, so close to shore, pilgrims going to see them (and this week-end will be packed with same) will not even have to leave the land. Again, a first.
Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, has been paying close attention to this phenomenon. First, he noted the zooplankton has been ample. Second there are the necessary currents which bring the zooplankton to the area; then the local currents which cause them to concentrate in amounts sufficient for hefty whale appetites. Given the fact that right whales can weigh up to 90 tons, you may imagine such appetites are gigantic. It is anticipated the whales will stay and feed for about a week; then go on their peripatetic way, the glories of the wide Atlantic… the more so since they remain on the knife edge of extinction.
As with so much of maritime history, we first need to be aware that many whale tales are fishy. So it is with right whales. Lore has it that they are called that because whalers thought these the “right” ones to hunt; that’s because most of them float after slaughter. They are also pretty easy to access given that they often swim (as they are swimming in Provincetown today) close to shore. In short, easy pickings… and hunted nearly to extinction during the active years of the whaling industry, described in detail in “Moby Dick” by Herman Melviille (published 1851). It goes without saying that Moby Dick is the most famous right whale in history; perhaps even the most famous whale of all. Local folks will surely tell you so. Then they’ll sell you some trinket or other.
Right whales are three species of large baleen whales consisting of two genera in the family Balaenidae of order Cetacea. They occupy the genus Eubalaena.
Authorities have repeatedly recategorized the three populations of Eubalaena right whales,in one, two, or three species. In the whaling era there was thought to be a single species. Later, morphological factors such as differences in the skull shape of northern and southern animals indicated that there were at least two species — one in the northern hemisphere, the other in the Southern Ocean.
Right whales do not cross equatorial waters to make contact with other (sub) species and (inter) breed. Thick layers of insulating blubber make it impossible for them to dissipate their internal body heat in tropical waters.
Unlike other whales, right whales have distinctive callosities (roughened patches of skin) on their heads, along with a broad back without a dorsal fin, occasionally with white belly patches and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. The callosities appear white due to large colonies of cyamids (whale lice). They can grow up to 18 m (59 feet); significantly larger than humpbacks or grays, but smaller than blues.
Its predators: orcas and us.
Orcas are bad enough, but over time right whales have developed a community approach to defending themselves. It is quite different with humans who are, by far, the greater enemy. We wanted them, first and foremost, for their oil, but later as preservation technology improved, we slaughtered them for their meat.
While many different peoples hunted right whales (not least because they swim slowly and can the more easily be caught), it was the people of Massachusetts and New York who hunted them most efficiently, to the deadly diminution of the whales. Just what they did and how they did it can be found in no better place than “Moby Dick”, as generations of students have (sadly) discovered. It is the story of hard-living, young dying men who had employment in the most demanding of industries. Sent to sea at 15 or less, they quickly grew inured to its hardships… or else suffered the consequences. Such men cared nothing for the majesty of the right whale, or any whale. They saw Yankee greenbacks, pure and simple.
With typical American hard work, imagination and ingenuity, the whale industry went global with a vengeance, establishing whale stations wherever needed, the better to ensure supplies and cater to the burgeoning international markets which clambered for bits and pieces of whales, caring nothing about the mammals themselves.
In due course Yankee efficiency ran the right whales right up to the verge of extinction. The world saw and took notice, but nearly too late as the world has seen with so many other animals found now in scientific collections as specimens only. They banned right whaling in 1937. Japan and Russia (mostly as the Soviet Union) scoffed at the prohibition and advanced the date of extinction. Somebody somewhere always has a good reason for believing their needs transcend the necessity for protection and preservation. All extinct species have learned too late that the human species is adept at special pleading and privilege, to the detriment of all.
Now they gather again.
In 1910, the great monarchies of the world gathered for the coronation of British King George V. Just 4 years later, these self same monarchies took sides in the great war known as World War I. Their 1910 gathering in London was seen as the swan song of the old regime, its last great convocation. Extinction for them followed rapidly.
Is this the fate of the right whale, now gathering in the largest number ever seen together, a group of about 200 in a total population between 400-500? We must not merely hope alone. We must continue to badger our representatives with our unfailing concern and high anxiety about the fate of creatures who never hurt us but whom we have devastated and tormented with near total impunity. This is not acceptable.
Reason for hope.
Fortunately whales, especially right whales, have good reason to hope for the best. Unlike too many extinct animals, whales have captured public imagination and thus a large constituency of good people willing and able to lobby for whales. An important part of this constituency consists of school children. Some of their poems and essays in support of whales appear on their “Save the Whales” website.
Here’s one of the many poems I liked, this one by Victor Tucker, age 8, in 2007, then a third grader from Kansas:
Whales are chubby. Whales are fat. Whales are bigger than a cat.
Whales have two eyes, two ears, and a nose. Whales have everything but toes.
Whales are big. Whales are stout. Whales, they hum, they don’t shout.
Whales have a blowhole on top of their head Whales don’t have to make their bed.
People want to kill the whales. We have to even save their tails.
Does anyone else see a budding Ogden Nash (d. 1971) here? May saving whales help give us more whales and more poets, too.
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at worldprofit.com and JeffreyLantArticles.com
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Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.