As Seas Warm, Whales Face New Dangers

Humpback whale tail patterns are unique, helping researchers identify them. Credit North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog.

At least twice a day, beginning shortly after dawn, researchers climb steps and ladders and crawl through a modest glass doorway to scan the surrounding sea, looking for the distinctive spout of a whale.

This chunk of rock, about 25 nautical miles from Bar Harbor, is part of a global effort to track and learn more about one of the sea’s most majestic and endangered creatures. So far this year, the small number of sightings here have underscored the growing perils along the East Coast to both humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales.

This past summer, the numbers of humpback whales identified from the rock were abysmal — the team saw only eight instead of the usual dozens. Fifty-three humpbacks have died in the last 19 months, many after colliding with boats or fishing gear.

Scientists worry that the humpbacks may have been forced elsewhere in a search for food as the seas grow rapidly warmer and their feeding grounds are disturbed.

“Food is becoming more patchy and less reliable, so animals are moving around more,” said Scott Kraus, vice president and chief scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “The more you move around, the higher the chance of entanglements.”

The North Atlantic right whales, which prefer colder waters, are also on a changed course — with even more dire consequences. Fifteen of the animals have died since mid-April in a population that has now slipped to fewer than 450.

“We haven’t seen this level of mortality in right whales since we stopped whaling them” in coastal New England in the 1700s, said Dr. Kraus.

The aquarium maintains a catalog of images of North Atlantic right whales, in part to track their population levels. The pictures, spanning decades, are crucial to understanding these elusive leviathans. 10-2-17

Read more at The New York Times