Ask someone on the street to “quick, name two kinds of whales!” or press a whale-lover on which species she would be most excited to see on a whale watching trip, and you’re likely to hear about iconic species like the majestic humpback, the enormous blue, or the sleek orca.
That was certainly the case for me until a few years ago when I started working on the Smithsonian Ocean Portal. That’s when I became smitten with a whale named Phoenix— a 24-year-old north Atlantic right whale. Phoenix and the others of her kind may not be the most popular whales in the sea, but there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to them:
1) A History to Learn From – The story of the north Atlantic right whale holds many lessons about human-whale interactions. These large, slow-moving surface-feeders received their name because they were the right whale to hunt in the 1800’s, fetching a pretty penny for their blubber and baleen. Even though it’s been illegal to hunt them since 1935, their numbers have dwindled. Today, they are still vulnerable to collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, and their numbers have dipped below 500 individuals—making them one of the rarest marine mammals in the world.
2) Ears in the Water – Researchers working to protect north Atlantic right whales have devised some clever ways to help out the dwindling species. The Right Whale Listening Network monitors a series of “listening buoys” off the coast of Massachusetts (USA) that detect whale calls, allowing the researchers to alert ships when whales are in the area. Knowing where whales congregate and travel has helped officials adjust the shipping channels and boat regulations in Boston Harbor to reduce collisions.
3) Big Whales, Small Riders – These behemoths (which can weigh up to 70 tons) carry friends along wherever they go. Tiny crustaceans, sometimes called whale lice, hitch a ride on rough patches of skin called callosities. Gross, but cool.
4) A Well-Kept Family Tree – In addition to housing whale lice, callosities on the whales’ skin are useful to scientists. The patterns made by these light-colored patches—combined with scars and other identifying marks—help researchers pinpoint and track individual whales and family groups. Phoenix, for example, is #1705 in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, and her late mother, Stumpy, is #1004.
5) Boats, Planes, and Poop – Scientists from the New England Aquarium and other research organizations spend hours on the water and in the air keeping an eye on (and snapping pictures of) the few hundred remaining north Atlantic right whales. Some research teams also employ an unusual tactic to check up on the whales: they bring specially trained scat-sniffing dogs out in their boats to help locate whale poop, which holds clues about the animals’ diet and health.
About the Author
Christine Hoekenga is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science, natural history, and sustainability. Her love for the ocean dates back to childhood when she was knocked face-down by her first wave on the California coast. Since then, Christine has been immersed in marine issues as a student, a SCUBA diver, a science writer, and an organizer and advocate for environmental nonprofits. Her interests include coral reefs, octopods, marine fisheries, and all types of citizen science projects.