By Matt Scott
On the 22nd July 2020, Alix McDermott – looking out from the bridge of his tanker the Raleigh Fisher – was about to have an extremely unusual cetacean sighting. Himself and the captain suddenly noticed a whale along the side of the vessel just 50 metres away. A black, sleek body lacking a dorsal fin and a tall V-shaped blow were all clearly visible, and then just like that the whale was gone.
“We noticed the whale as it was tracking down our starboard side so there was no time to run down to a cabin and get a camera/phone”
Leaving from the Clyde in Scotland just six days earlier, the ship had passed through the Irish Sea, crossed the western approaches to the English Channel and entered the Bay of Biscay, where the sighting was made. After much discussion and consultation with Identification Guides, Alix and the captain realised that the species could be only one species, a North Atlantic Right Whale, and they immediately reported the sighting to Sea Watch.
Named the “right” whale due to its ease of capture – they have a slow swimming speed, a coastal habit, a thick blubber layer rich in oil, and a body that floats after death and so could be readily towed to shore, the species was hunted relentlessly from at least the 11th to the 19th century, leading to the virtual extinction of the eastern North Atlantic population, and serious depletion of the population remaining in the western North Atlantic.
This hunting makes it the rarest of the great whales with only about 400 individuals left in the world, almost all in the Northwest Atlantic. Here it migrates from the Gulf of Mexico and Florida north to the coast of New England, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and more recently to the Gulf of St Lawrence and Greenland. In the eastern North Atlantic, it once ranged from northwest Africa, the Azores and the Mediterranean, north to the Bay of Biscay, Western Ireland, the Hebrides, Shetland, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Svalbard.
Feeding takes place in spring, summer and fall, in higher-latitude feeding grounds where ocean temperatures are cooler and more productive. Right whales feed exclusively on zooplankton, especially large copepods (crustaceans approximately the size of a grain of rice). The best-known feeding grounds are in the western North Atlantic. Calving occurs in the winter with the best-known calving grounds in the North Atlantic being the coastal waters off Georgia and north-eastern Florida.
Because right whale numbers are so low in the North Atlantic, most individuals have been photo-identified using the unique pattern of callosities (thickened skin patches) on their prominent heads. In June 2019, an 11-year-old male named Mogul appeared off the French coast at Penmarch in the northern Bay of Biscay (after having been seen 3 months earlier in Cape Cod – 3,200 miles away!). Mogul is clearly a great wanderer, having been seen in July 2018 in SW Iceland.
“This latest sighting yesterday may well be the same animal since it is in a similar area in the northern Bay of Biscay although further offshore; unfortunately, the ship’s crew were unable to get a photograph of the animal to confirm individual identity, but the description leaves little doubt as to the species,” said Dr Peter Evans, Director of Sea Watch Foundation.
Earlier this month, the IUCN revised the species classification from endangered to critically endangered. It is now just one step from extinction. With less than 100 breeding age females alive today, the maths doesn’t look good for the species. Between 2017-2020, 12 births had been observed in the three calving seasons whereas 30 individuals have died, primarily due to ship strike or entanglement in fishing gear. This represents an unusually high mortality, that sadly is continuing into 2020.
Climate change is likely exacerbating the species decline. Previously, climate change had pushed their main prey species further north, into the Gulf of St Lawrence, where right whales are more prone to ship strikes and crab/lobster pot entanglement. Interestingly, climate change may also be the case of this unusual sighting.
“It is likely that the change in oceanographic conditions arising from climate change is causing right whales to seek out new areas to feed,” said Dr Evans. “This poses further dangers. A major shipping route passes through the Bay of Biscay from the English Channel to the northwest corner of Spain. We already have cases of fin whales being accidentally struck and killed in the Bay of Biscay, so this North Atlantic Right Whale is running the gauntlet of ships”.
Coincidentally, this sighting has occurred just days before the annual National Whale & Dolphin Watch Event (Sat 25 July – Sun 2 Aug), now in its nineteenth year, when everyone is invited to look out for whales, dolphins and porpoises. The information gained from this “snapshot” of whale and dolphin presence each year helps inform conservation at a time when changing ocean conditions and increasing threats to the species make it so important.
Alix used our online sighting form to submit his rare encounter of the right whale, and sent us an email with the exciting news, for which we are very grateful. If you sight marine mammals, basking sharks, sea turtles or any other interesting marine life, we encourage you to submit the sighting using our forms so it can become part of our large data set. Details of how to do this can be found on our website.