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A nose of a Northern Right Whale.
A nose of a Northern Right Whale.

Back from the dead

Right whales reproduce at record rates Add to ...

The northern right whale is as big as a house and has a face only a mother could love, but it has no worries in the dating department. In fact, the species that old-time whalers dubbed the "right" one to kill is a 80-tonne sex fiend, its females promiscuous and its males adorned with the largest testes in the animal kingdom (together, they weigh nearly a tonne).

Truly homely, the right whale has a head that takes up a third of its body length and is covered with "callosities," unsightly raised patches of discoloured skin whose only saving grace seems to be the fact that each pattern is unique and can be used to identify its owner.

But when in the mood for love, the massive creature will gather, as many as 50 at a time, to take part in what scientists call "surface active groups," but look very much like orgies to the rest of us. Often, one female will call several males, equipped with three-metre penises, to her side and then lounge on her back as the object of their affection for as long as six hours.

Clearly, they're a frisky lot - and it's a good thing too.

For decades, the northern right has been the most vulnerable of the world's whales, near the top of almost every list of animals considered doomed to extinction. By the time hunting was banned in the 1930s, a population in the North Atlantic that had once numbered many thousand had dwindled to a couple of hundred at best. Even more alarming, half a century later, it was still struggling just to hold its own and many researchers feared that the species was doomed.

But this year, scientists are walking with a spring in their step. The cause: a significant cetacean baby boom. This winter saw a record crop of 39 calves born in the northern right's maternity ward off Florida and Georgia (which considers the whale its state animal).

For a creature that is endangered, every birth counts, and this year's tally is not only 25 per cent higher than the old record - 31, set in 2001 - it's a massive increase from 2000, when just one baby survived. Since that dismal low, more than 20 calves have been born on average every year, roughly double the annual crop in the 1990s.

NO EASY ANSWERS

The boom is "incredible" news to Laurie Murison, head of New Brunswick's Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station. "Most people are very excited."

But it's also a bit of a mystery, says Bradley White, a geneticist at Trent University in Peterborough who has studied the whale. "I don't think any one would have predicted what has happened. ... It's a surprise."

Food may be the answer. After giving birth in the warm south, the northern right heads north to spend the summer feeding off Cape Cod and southern Nova Scotia and in the Bay of Fundy. Scientists suspect recent years have seen an abundance of what they eat - tiny krill-like creatures known as copepods, which they strain from the sea using baleen, the comb-like strands they have instead of teeth.

Ms. Murison says the better food supply may be due to long-term fluctuations in the North Atlantic Oscillation, an El Nino-type phenomenon that is a major cause in the variability of winter storms in the region. The improved diet allows females to pack on enough blubber to withstand the rigours of reproduction. Newborn calves weigh more than 1,000 kilograms, as much as a small car, and nursing mothers can lose 10 to 30 per cent of their weight in a year.

Ships also pose a major threat to the species - more than a third of the 80 known to have died since 1970 had been involved in collisions. In 2003, shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were tweaked in a bid to divert traffic from the whales' feeding grounds. Later, similar changes were introduced in U.S. waters, such as the approach to Boston.

Whatever the reason for the rising birth rate, the optimism it has sparked is a far cry from the gloom it replaces. A decade ago, computer models suggested that, at about 300 animals, the right whale was simply going extinct in slow motion. It lives nearly as long as humans do, roughly 60 years, but the birth rate had fallen so low and the death rate so high that it was just a matter of time. One estimate had the species petering out within 200 years.

But the most recent census in 2007 found that the population had bounced back to 414, a figure that is now even higher, although far short of the several thousand needed to take the species off the endangered list.

Its sex drive may be what is keeping the whale alive, but parental devotion is partly to blame for its downfall.

The old whalers called it "right" because it was so rich in blubber that it would stay afloat after being harpooned - and because it was often caught two at a time. Moira Brown, a senior scientist with both the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Canadian Whale Institute, says hunters often sought out mothers travelling with their young. They would target the calves first, knowing that, rather than try to escape, the mothers would frantically circle the boats until they also met their doom.

Although effective, this strategy was incredibly stupid from an ecological standpoint. "It's almost astonishing to me," Ms. Brown says, "that right whales are even still swimming the oceans."

BIG BOOM TO COME

Will the baby parade continue? Scientists aren't sure. They warn that the environmental conditions that have increased the food supply could reverse, and they worry that too many animals are still being hit by ships or dying after being entangled in fishing gear.

But for the time being, there is hope that the species may have a fighting chance. In fact, Ms. Brown says the population boom may just be starting. The females from the first bumper crop in 2001 will soon reach sexual maturity, followed by those in the years since, and begin to do their part. "Then we get the snowball effect of good reproductive success leading to lots of new young females...," she says. "That's what this population needs to recover."

Martin Mittelstaedt is The Globe and Mail's environment reporter.

*****

And then there

was none

Once upon a time, the northern right was a transatlantic species, found off the coast of Western Europe as well as North America.

But no more.

Around 1100 AD in Spain's Bay of Biscay, hunters began to focusing on the lumbering easy target, eventually wiping out the European population.

The occasional specimen is still spotted on the other side of the ocean - last summer off the Azores Islands and a decade ago near Norway. In both cases, they were animals that had been spotted in the Bay of Fundy.

Two other species of right whale ply the world's oceans. One is found in Antarctica, where it is thriving, while the other, in the northern Pacific, has been struggling like its Atlantic cousins, and may be even less numerous.

Even though the right whale is one of Canada's more endangered mammals, it has never attained the kind of animal-poster status enjoyed by more photogenic species, such as polar bears and killer whales, which have been turned into conservation icons by environmentalists.

Martin Mittelstaedt

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