Magnificent, Mysterious, and Dying


As we ask ourselves if whales can survive the damage humans have caused, we have become ever more entangled with these magnificent creatures. In order to save them and ourselves, we must turn to new technologies for answers.



On Christmas Day, 2010, Bayla, a two-year-old North Atlantic right whale, was spotted entangled in fishing gear off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. She was recognizable by the unique pattern created by thickened patches of raised, horny skin, called callosities, which ran from the tip of her head to her blowholes. Each right whale has a unique pattern of callosities, like a fingerprint.

Bayla, also known to scientists as Eg 3911, wasn’t doing well. Four hundred feet of fishing line was caught in her mouth, wrapped around both her flippers and dragged behind her, like a giant, heavy leash. Her body had grown into the ropes that bound her and she had many open wounds. She was emaciated; having lost 20 percent of her estimated body fat, because the manmade entrapment gear hindered her ability to feed herself. No one knew how long she had been ensnared. The last time she had been seen was the previous February.




Whales have had a long, complex history with humans. These ocean giants have been feared, hunted, admired, and celebrated across many cultures. Whales are found in the Qu’ran and Old Testament, where it is written that Jonah was swallowed whole by a whale. In ancient Chinese myths, Yu-Kiang ruled the sea and had the body of a whale, but the hands and feet of a man. In Greek and Roman mythology, a sea monster called Cetus. (now immortalized as a constellation) was sent to devour Andromeda but was slain by Perseus. For the Iñupiat of Alaska’s Arctic North Slope, the whale was invaluable to their survival. They use the entire animal for food, to form tools, to build houses and boats and even to mark their gravesites. Whales have also been important characters in modern literature. There is an asthmatic “Dog-fish,” believed to be a whale, in Collodi’s 1883 book, The Adventures of Pinocchio; a sperm/blue whale hybrid in Disney’s Pinocchio named Monstro; and then, of course, the sperm whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick that Ahab is so obsessed with killing.

In spite of their cultural popularity, whales have largely remained a mystery. “There’s just so much we don’t know about them,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States and former field researcher. “I think that for most of the creatures in the sea, [whales] might as well be on another planet. Until very recently, with the advent of tracking technology, we really had very little ability to understand these animals.” Still today, some species, like the blue whale, remain cryptic.

North Atlantic right whales, like Bayla, are one of the most endangered species of large whale, with only about 444 remaining, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

Collectively, whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the order called cetaceans. There are 87 species in this group. Of these, only 13 are known as “great whales.” Whales are further divided into two categories: toothed whales, like the Sperm whale, and baleen whales. Baleen are special bristle-like structures, made of keratin, which filter prey from the water. Examples of baleen whales include right whales; humpbacks; gray whales, known from the 2012 movie Big Miracle; and the enormous blue whale. The blue whale is the largest mammal to have ever inhabited the planet – bigger than dinosaurs – weighting as much as 40 elephants and having a heart the same size of a car.


The Right Product


Seven of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, largely because the whaling industry decimated their populations. The right whale was particularly hard hit.

“In the heyday of whaling, they were called the right whale because they were the right whale to kill,” explained Young. “They were slow, they were coastal, they had huge amounts of blubber and their baleen is extremely long [making] the baleen actually worth as much as the blubber.” The impact was so dramatic that in 1929, Norway forbade the capture of right whales.

Walking through New Bedford, Massachusetts today, with its cobble stoned streets, old-timey buildings and picturesque view of the docks; it is hard to imagine this quaint old town was once the whaling capital of the world. That reality only hits you when you walk into New Bedford’s Whaling Museum, where whaling is vividly depicted. Baleen was the plastic of the nineteenth century, used in buggy whips, corset stays, fishing poles, hoops in women’s skirts and umbrella ribs. Whale oil was extracted from blubber and bone and used for in lamps, lipsticks, typewriter ribbons, insecticides, etc. The bones were ground into fertilizer. In the twentieth century, technological advances made whaling more lethally efficient, with faster boats, factory ships and spotter helicopters. An average 100-tonne whale could be reduced to “raw product” in as little as 20 minutes.

A moratorium was passed banning commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. “There was an instant drop in the number of whales being killed,” said John Frizell, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. Today, roughly 1000 whales are killed a year as a result of whaling by Iceland, Norway and Japan, countries that continue the practice either under the guise of “scientific whaling” or by objecting to the moratorium. An Icelandic brewery, Ste›ji, currently sells a limited time beer, brewed with whalebones.

Whaling is no longer the biggest threat. “For future conservation, we can turn our attention away from hunting towards the kind of ocean that is going to exist in the future,” said Steve Palumbi, a geneticist and marine biologist from Stanford University, who was involved in a joint study that estimated pre-whaling humpback populations. “The world that we are moving into in the next century is going to be very different than we had in the last century. The future ocean is a very uncertain place.”


Dying Out


The first two attempts to rescue Bayla from entanglement were unsuccessful.

“She was really just not interested in being approached,” said Julie van der Hoop, a graduate student in a joint Oceanography program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Van der Hoop was the lead author on a May 2013 study in Marine Mammal Science involving Bayla. Protocol does not allow the rescue team to approach the animal if it is not deemed safe to do so. “A lot of people think we must be very high-risk people, willing to risk our lives to save these animals. That’s actually not the case,” said Scott Landry, who has been working as part of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Program at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies for the last 12 years. “The premise of the procedure here is basically never entering the water with the animals.” All rescues are done in boats to avoid the risk of rescuers becoming entangled in the gear.

 “If there is a serious human injury doing this work, the federal permits that we work under would likely be in jeopardy, and if those permits were revoked, no other whales would receive help,” he said. In New Zealand, a humpback crushed a man with its tail while he trying to free it.

It was decided that Bayla needed a sedative to be rescued, and on January 15, 2011, a third attempt was made, using a specifically configured dart gun to administer the drug. Sufficiently tranquilized, Bayla let the team approach to free her of most of the rope.

“There was gear around her mouth that was not removed because there was no way we could have got it out of there,” said Michael Moore, senior research scientist at WHOI and veterinary scientist. A monitoring device, called a Dtag, had been attached to Bayla before she was freed. It showed that immediately after being disentangled, she began diving faster, deeper and longer. The team was cautiously optimistic that she might recover.

Just a couple weeks later, a dead right whale was found in Florida, off the coast of St. Augustine.

It was Bayla.

Her body was towed onto a beach, where a necropsy was performed. “We think what likely happened was that the huge amount of weight loss and dehydration [she experienced] weakened her to the point where she essentially wasn’t moving from the surface and she became excellent shark prey,” said Van der Hoop.




With a massive expansion in global fisheries over the last century, it isn’t uncommon for whales to run into fishing gear. Photographic studies show scars on about 72 percent of right whales from fishing lines that have cut into their flesh.  According to a 2013 journal article in Animal Welfare, fishing entanglements accounted for 323 whales being killed or seriously injured off the east coast between 1970 and 2009. But how do these whales become entangled in the first place?

 “Right whales are constantly going up and down in the water [while] they feed,” said David Gouveia, a marine mammal supervisor for the NOAA Fisheries Service. “[A whale] feeds with its mouth open and when it encounters a line, its behavior instinctively teaches it to roll or dip or dive. That is how it becomes more and more entangled.” Some young or smaller whales drown immediately, but most large whales will break through the nets, carrying the gear with them. Long-term entanglements can be fatal, and the whales experience slow, painful deaths.

NOAA Fisheries have made attempts to modify fishing nets and gear to reduce risk. They have implemented seasonal closures of fisheries in critical whale habitats and have developed devices called “weak links” that are added to the rope of the fishing line at the buoy to allow an easier detachment. They have also required trap gear, such as lobster traps, to have “sinking lines” (where the rope between traps lies on the ocean floor) instead of “floating lines,” to minimize rope floating where whales swim.

“Nobody wants to kill a whale,” said Moore, from WHOI. “But we’re still killing whales. Entanglement is really benign whaling by default rather than by design. We’re killing a whale, whether [we] are doing it with a harpoon or whether we are doing it with a net or a piece of lobster gear.” Moore argues that the threat from fishing gear is difficult to resolve because there is no one institution to blame. Instead, the industry is a diffuse target, with millions of people depending on it for their livelihood. Short of eradicating fishing – which is not a viable option – there is no way of eradicating this risk to whales.

When asked if he thinks we can ever really lessen the impact of entanglements on whales, he responded solemnly. “I don’t know. That’s something that I’ve worried about a lot. I tend to just sit at my desk and write case reports and say, here’s the problem. I feel like I have failed to communicate what I know at the popular level.”


Calvin and Hobbes


Calvin is a female North Atlantic right whale, named after the spunky character in the comic strip by researchers at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. Researchers had been tracking her mother, Delilah, since 1982.  Calvin was her first calf. Disaster struck in 1992, when Calvin was just eight months old. A ship hit and killed Delilah in the Bay of Fundy. Her carcass was found on a beach, but Calvin was nowhere around. Scientists worried that the youngling was too small and inexperienced to make it. Calves usually stay with their mothers for a year, gradually being weaned. Luckily though Calvin survived the ordeal and was spotted the next year.

“Apparently [Delilah] taught her youngster well, so she was able to feed,” said Amy Knowlton, research scientists at the New England Aquarium. Calvin later survived an entanglement in fishing gear and has since had two calves, one girl named Hobbes and a boy yet to be named. She is currently one of six North Atlantic right whales that can be sponsored as part of the New England Aquarium right whale sponsorship program, the funds supporting right whale research.


Cautiously Optimistic


Calvin’s story highlights just how the shipping industry can have tragic impacts on whales. Right whales are particularly susceptible to ship strikes, being slower swimmers. They also sleep on the surface at night and their dark grey color makes them difficult to see.

“Also when whales are in a surface active group, so they are in a feeding or mating frenzy, [they] are oblivious to the noises around them,” said Gouveia from NOAA. “For a large ship it is hard to steer around them quickly because they don’t see them until it’s too late.”

Large vessels also create underwater noise pollution, or “acoustic smog.” Whales depend heavily on sound to communicate and any interferences hinders their ability to find food, mates, avoid predators and take care of their young. In fact, an August 2012 study, published in Conservation Biology, suggests that North Atlantic right whales have lost 63 to 67 percent of their communication space in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a critical feeding ground near Boston.

The good news is that shipping seems to be a problem offering solutions. Research suggests slowing down large vessels by speeds of just 10 knots (11.5 mph) allows the whales time to avoid collisions. Late last year, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service finalized a rule making whale speed zone protections (areas where vessels over 65 feet must reduce speed) permanent. Over the past five years, according to litigator Jane Davenport for the Defenders of Wildlife, that speed limitation almost completely eliminated ship strikes within those zones.

Technology also continues to harm whales with other noise generators. Seismic testing for offshore drilling and Navy sonar testing disorient and deafen whales.

“I think that technology is a detriment and it is a gift,” said Heather Rally, marine mammal specialist with the Oceanic Preservation society and veterinary science student. “There are always going to be technological advances that are used to further economic interests and then, at the same time, we are intelligent creatures with the ability to use technology for good.”

One way that technology is being used positively is with an iPad/iPhone app. Mariners along the east coast use an app to warn them when they enter high-risk collision areas with right whales. The free app also gives information about whale management measures and overlays the latest right whale detections on a chart. The Whale Alert app links to near-real time acoustic buoys that listen for right whale calls. Now, with a hand held device on a ship’s bridge, the captain can virtually see where the whales are.

Knowing the location of whales helps protect them, and the technology is improving our understanding of their whereabouts. Oceana, an international organization focused solely on ocean conservation has funded the expedited review of acoustic data off the coast of Virginia that was obtained by recording buoys. This is more accurate than older methods to spotting them by plane or ship. The buoys also track the whales all of the time, instead of merely during daylight or favorable weather.

A current proposal for seismic testing excluded a zone of 20 nautical miles, where it was assumed right whales occupied. However, acoustic monitoring buoys found whales as far as 60 nautical miles offshore. According to Matthew Huelsenbeck, marine scientist for Oceana, that meant “the protections they were putting forth were based on outdated science.” Oceana now has data to back up their demand for a wider range of exclusion for the seismic testing.

Acoustic monitoring is not the only new hi-tech way whales can be monitored. In Australia, postdoctoral fellow Amanda Hogson, from the Murdoch University Cetacean Research unit, is currently pursuing research on the benefits of using unmanned aerial aircraft (UAVs), or drones, to conduct aerial surveys of whales. UAVs have the potential to save money, be safer for the scientists and will likely provide more reliable data. It also greener than flying planes.

Palumbi’s genetic study, determining how many humpback whales existed beforewhaling, wasn’t possible until the genetic technology had matured to its recent state. “In the last two decades, the ability to sequence DNA or particular genes from all kinds of different organisms has ballooned incredibly, and that gives us access to data sets for animals like humpback whales that we simply never had before,” he said. “The combination of that data and analyses of that data has led us to essentially reconstruct the past.” He added that he hopes this technology will allow them to answer big mysterious questions, like what happened to all the whale species, and then, “turn around and look at the future and say, what kinds of whale populations might we expect in the future and how do we gage our own success.”

The rise in popularity of the documentary film Blackfish, about Sea World and captive orcas (which are actually not whales but the largest member of the dolphin family) highlights the power of film and social media as a tool to learn about and protect these special animals. “With Blackfish, I have been completely blown away,” said vet student, Rally. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Sea World would be facing this kind of adversity on a public sphere because of a film.”

“It is only recently, that I think we are starting to reach a critical mass of awareness and I really do have to attribute that to the power of not just film, but social media,” she continued. “The ability for people to communicate and access information a the click of a button is really shaping the future. It just goes to show how powerful we really are as the general public.” Once you have the ability to learn about whales and the threats they face in the future, said Young from the Humane Society, “it is harder to turn away.”




A15-ton whale found floating dead off the coast of Vietnam in February 2010 was dragged ashore, not by scientists but by fishermen who wished to bury it. Nearly 3,000 people attended the whale’s last rites, near the Cai Cung River, and 10,000 converged in a nearby village to mourn the passing of the creature they called “Your Excellency.” This event isn’t unusual. In Vietnam, whales are viewed as sacred, particularly among fishermen who see them as harbingers of good luck and safety. In Florida, just this January, scientists and news cameras descended on the scene of 25 beached pilot whales off Kice Island – our way to honor them. The nation held their breath and hoped for their survival, until news confirmed that all 25 had died.

But Humane Society advocate, Young, worries that people are becoming more callous. “There seems to be a slight change towards animals,” she said. “Our values are shifting more towards utilitarian, fiscal concerns rather than intrinsic protection of our resources.”

Throughout mythology and across cultures, whales are held in awe or feared as dangerous. They swallow people in one big gulp in Holy Scriptures to teach lessons, or play the villain in children’s stories. They punish us for our flaws – hubris, arrogance, defiance of God, and obsession. In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ahab tries to kill the whale only for the rope of his harpoon to coil around his neck and pull him, entangled, under the water to drown. In Iceland, legend tells of a man who threw a stone at a fin whale and killed it. As punishment, he was told he could not revisit the sea for 20 years, but just one year shy of the end of his sentence, he couldn’t wait any longer. He returned to the ocean, only to be killed.

One thing seems clear: humankind and whales are intertwined. Today, scientific advancements confirm the harm we do to whales. The more we try to save them, the more we realize our limitations. Perhaps, we would do well to remember the cautionary tales of myths that seem particularly apt when working for the conservation of whales.