We currently estimate that there are 510 right whales in the North Atlantic. We’ve seen an increase over 35 years of about 200 whales. It’s lower than we expected. Right whales are the rarest of the large whales.
They live out most of their lives within 50 miles from the shore from Florida to Nova Scotia. About 50 percent of North Atlantic right whales die from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.
Our summer work takes us into the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian Maritimes. We started surveying the bay in 1980 in response to a proposal for an oil refinery and discovered right whales there. It turned out to be a summering ground, particularly for mothers and calves. We take photographs of all the whales that are seen. That way we can monitor the changes in condition and additional scars.
For me, it’s like going home. I’ve been going there for 35 years. It’s a kind of weird place. When right whales are there, there are almost no other species around. We don’t work in the fog, and we have trouble on really flat, calm days finding the whales. They have no dorsal fin. You don’t see them on calm days because their blows disappear. We have learned that you can go to these places and turn off the boat engine and just listen. You can hear them blow up to a mile or two away.
We are there until the end of September. It’s not like whale watching for us. In a population this small, you know a percentage of the whales. There’s a girl named Admiral. She raises her tail in the air. You can tell her from miles away.
You don’t see much of a whale when you look at it, and you see very little of their life. There are huge gaps in our understanding of whales, and it’s partly because they are so hard to study.
(Interview has been edited and condensed.)