IS THE RIGHT WHALE?
a universal name for a species as large as a whale might seem to be
one of the easier challenges for early naturalists attempting to catalogue
the worlds fauna, yet for North Atlantic right whales it was anything
but easy. So says David W. Laist in a new book, "North Atlantic
Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon" (2017,
Johns Hopkins University Press).
North Americans joined the hunt [for whales] in the 1600s and early
1700s, this whale was variously called the black whale, the true whale,
the whalebone whale, the seven-foot bone whale (a reference to the typical
length of their baleen), the rocknose whale (a reference to the knobby
callosities atop their head), and eventually the right whale (because
its economic value was superior to that of other whales, and hence it
was the right whale to chase and kill). You will not need to consult
another source to learn about the history and biology of this intriguing
the history of whaling from medieval times to the present, from the
enigmatic Basques ... to Dutch, Danish, and German whalers. As
with so many alluring creatures through the ages, humans have not been
good stewards of these marine mammals. The near extinction of the North
Atlantic right whale occurred in large part because of its commercial
value. Fortunately, the commodities once associated with right whales
such as whale oil, whalebone corsets and whale steaks
are hardly big sellers in any current U.S. markets.
States took two admirable actions in 1972 that advanced protection for
whales. One was the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was passed on
Oct. 21; the other, enacted two months later, was the Endangered Species
Act. The original MMPA was 118 pages long, which indicates a careful
and thoughtful review process by Congress. The ESA soon followed. Both
acts include right whales in their protection.
traits contributed to right whales becoming an economically profitable
target for whalers. For starters, they are relatively docile. Considering
that they can approach a length of 60 feet and a weight of 60 tons,
such docility would be a welcome attribute to the men who hunted them
in wooden boats. In addition, North Atlantic right whales are noted
for feeding close to shore in bays and other relatively shallow waters.
desirable feature of right whales is that the blubber on a healthy right
whales back can often be more than a foot thick. This assured
that it would float after being killed by whalers. No one knows how
many whales over the centuries were killed and then ultimately drifted
to the oceans bottom, never to be retrieved. Compared to some
of the other iconic whales such as sperm, bowhead and blue whales, right
whales died in relatively fewer numbers. Nonetheless they were hunted
almost to the point of extinction.
were also valued for their baleen, the long strands in the mouth through
which engulfed water is expelled, filtering out the small microorganisms
that right whales eat. Baleen, also known as whalebone, is made of keratin,
structurally similar to our fingernails, and was prized for its use
in various products back in the day collar stays for mens
dress shirts, buggy whips and frames for crinoline petticoats. Corset
stays were also made from whalebone.
of a right whale accounts for one-fourth of its body. On the top of
the upper jaw are obvious protuberances known as callosities, which
are light-colored incrustations scattered along the head.
They are present only on right whales. They can resemble scars or recent
wounds and may even have barnacles on them, but they are always present.
No one yet knows what function, if any, the callosities serve. They
are virtually always associated with small crustaceans known as whale
lice. One of the heartening features of ecology for young biologists
is that many mysteries of nature are still unsolved.
about 500 North Atlantic right whales exist. But an encouraging note
is that babies, called calves, are being recorded every year and reveal
an increase in population size. From 1981 to 2000, fewer than 10 calves
were documented in many years, and the number was seldom as high as
15. In seven of the years since 2001, from 20 to 35 calves have been
reported. Humans have an opportunity to right a centuries-old wrong
by keeping whaling regulations rigorous across the globe. If we do,
North Atlantic right whales may once again number in the thousands.
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