Spacious Seas Where a Majesty of Right Whales Roam

In the sky, south of the high table-top escarpment that separated us from where the dead right whale lay, a bright shaft of rainbow light scorched upwards the rose-colored sky.

During the summer of 2017, the tenth right whale known to die in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was found in Cedar Cove, Newfoundland on August 2nd.  The death of this particular whale, one of twelve that died in these waters well north of the Gulf of Maine, would tell us more about what was going on than would any other whale.

Nobody lives in Cedar Cove because it is on the outside of the Bay of Islands facing weather that streams over Labrador and rushes head-long across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cedar Cove Trail Head Parking Lot is at the end of the road from Corner Brook. Past York Harbor and Lark Harbor, the road ramps up through spruce forests around table-top moors to a place known for the best beach combing in Newfoundland.

On August 2, the day the whale was found, I was on a Dutch tall ship, the bark Europa.  We had anchored the night before in the harbor named for the ship HMS Lark (a 32-gun fifth rate two-decker frigate) that was in this place 250 years ago.

In the morning, the wind was very light from the north. Ideal conditions for setting all 1250 square meters of sail on the 185 foot three masted bark. We pulled out whisker poles and set six stunsails flying. Europa cleared the Bay of Islands and headed south along Newfoundland’s western shore.

To our left, Cedar Cove was a distant notch in the skyline of spruce and rock. Here an expired right whale lay high on a boulder strewn shore.  I did not know this until the next day when fellow crew members from Corner Brook told me what they had heard from family back home.

I was greatly concerned.  A few days earlier I had been on a local whale watch in search of the eight right whales that were summering in the Bay of Islands.  For a couple of hours, we motored outwards in the deep bay from Corner Brook. No sign of right whales was found that day.  We did see humpback and fin whales, and small open boats containing one or two fishermen catching cod with hook and line.

Bay of Islands is Newfoundland’s most important estuary. In this spectacular landscape, the cold waters flow down the Humber River from Deer Lake forming a strong salmon run with grilse, small salmon, and salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Such a healthy ecosystem is a grand place for right whales and a great pride for the resident people.

This is arguably the finest salmon waters in the Atlantic Ocean.  So, of course, there are right whales in the Bay of Islands.  The question is what took them so long.  The answer is likely, but not necessarily, a combination of changes in the ocean and changes with this population of whales.

Our ignorance of life beneath the waves is astounding. This, despite an abundance of information that is nearly drowning us, along with a stifling amount of opinions washing about.

Right whales are very difficult to see, let alone count. They lack the speed, the wheel and splash, of fin, minke, and humpback whales. With mouth open, they filter out plankton through baleen plates that hang down in the mouth.  At times, with top lip above the water and baleen visible, a clickety-clack sound may be heard of baleen plates hitting one another.

Fast swimming whales have a small fin on top like the feather on the back of an arrow.  It helps them go straight at high speeds.  No dorsal fin on right whales.  Not eating fish, there is nothing hurried about a right whale.

Right whales appear to me as the most majestic of whales. They swim slowly, stately, rising up and settling down.

Outside the Bay of Islands, along the rock-bound coast, life for right whales is not as copacetic. This was not the first right whale to perish close to Bay of Islands.  Just to the north, a right whale was also found dead in Chimney Cove.

A right whale was also found dead in the very Southwest corner of Newfoundland at Cape Ray, fifteen miles west of Port Aux Basques where the Nova Scotia ferry pulls in.

A fourth right whale was found way north, dead on the Western shore south of the River of Ponds.  This whale expired about 275 north of Cape Ray, twice the distance north to Bay of Islands.  All four whales were greatly decomposed. That is, they had died many weeks previously.

The eight right whales observed grazing in the Bay of Islands were individually known. The four dead whales, found on the outer coast, were most definitely not one of the local right whales.  Two of the dead whales had unique callosity markings.  The other two dead whales were too far gone to be individually identified and died long ago, before live whales were seen in Corner Brook.

Elsewhere, eight more right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. North of the Magdalen Islands a badly decomposed right whale was found bobbing on the surface. Two right whale was found north of Prince Edwards Island, once came ashore near Norway. Further West, off New Brunswick, five right whales were found dead.

These places are about as far from Newfoundland as Boston is from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  The Gulf of Maine is about 70,000 square miles and Gulf of St. Lawrence is roughly 91,000.  These are spacious seas where North Atlantic right whales dwell.

The trouble for right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence may be that it drains the Great Lakes. This means much boat traffic and pollution. It could result in more ship strikes and the lessening of fertility from toxic chemicals that bio-accumulate in fat cells passed from mother whales to young.  More nutrients may feed harmful algal blooms to create ocean dead zones.  There is also a large snow crab fishery.

The twelve dead right whales ranged in age from two to at least thirty-seven years old.  Eight males and four females were found.  Nine of the whales had been individually identified and were included in the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog.  Three right whales were new to these researchers.

Of the four dead right whales found strewn across Newfoundland’s Western shore, the one found in Cedar Cove looked like an abandoned gray survival suit that had been tossed up on the rocks. It had been dead for so long, was so decomposed, that the bones had slipped out, likely head first, sinking into the deep leaving behind, floating on the surface, blubber and skin.

The Cedar Cove right whale (Whale #11) was a twelve-year-old female. Genetic profiling revealed that this was the same whale as the one found floating dead north of Prince Edward Island. This whale (#5) had gone missing after July 4th. At that time the carcass condition was already moderately decomposed, suggesting death was about a month earlier.  Modeling with currents and prevailing wind conditions, researchers calculated that this whale was much further west, close to the New Brunswick shore, when it was struck by a vessel and killed.

Hindcast reverse trajectories were simulated for eight whales in total.  This includes the Cedar Cove whale. Predicting the drift of dead whales for 14 days prior found most of the trajectories originated on the western side of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, well south of the St. Lawrence seaway boat traffic.

The report ruled out harmful algal blooms and diseases. Ship strikes and fishing entanglements killed the whales. The increase in mortality was attributed to a combination of three factors: increased right whale abundance in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, increased exposure to human-activities, and whale carcasses were more apt to be found due to increased survey efforts.

The finding-more-whales factor was put on steroids by international interest and heightened media coverage. Before this summer, a whale found dead was a big deal to locals and hardly considered newsworthy in the next town or two over. Such occurrences in Newfoundland were of little interest to Prince Edward Island, to New Brunswick, and visa versa.

In 2017, the counting of dead right whales was on.  So much so that in September, a whale watching cruise ship departed Southampton, UK, in hopes of viewing the last of the right whales in Canadian waters.

For the nine right whales known to researchers in Boston, exposure to human-activities did not increase significantly in Canadian waters. Yes, there were likely more right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than ever before.

There is another human-whale interaction that should also be factored in, one that should not repeat in subsequent years. It is possible the high whale mortality in 2017 is not part of a downward spiral for the right whale population of changing ocean conditions. These tragedies are very specific, and may be more an episode, an anomaly, than part of a trend.

Five right whales were entangled in snow crab fishing gear off of Shippagan, New Brunswick.  The Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy answered the call. They were the only ones with the permit, and the will, to rescue entangled right whales in the Canadian Maritimes.

Two entangled whales were freed of gear.  On July 10, the rescue boat approached the third whale. Joe Howlett cut free one of the lines with a long spear-like handle with a knife on the end. Howlett hooked under the second line. Cut free of entanglement, the whale dropped under the boat.  The whale’s massive tail came up and came down striking Howlett dead. The whale shook loose the lines and swam off.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team stopped disentangling right whales.  They had cut free the snow crab gear from three whales, two males ages 6 years and 33 years, and one unknown gender right whale.  A seven-year-old female and fifteen-year-old male were also observed entangled in gear. These whales were left to fend for themselves.

For years the rescue team had called on the Canadian government to fund rescue work freeing whales. To no avail. With the tragic loss of Howlett, right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy were bereft of rescue teams.

Instead of stepping up to fund a rescue vessel in the vicinity of the snow-crab fishery to complement the privately-funded Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy, the government suspended right whale rescues and closed the snow crab fishery for the summer.

Extensive necropsies were completed on carcasses of six right whales.  For one whale, decomposition was too advanced for a cause of death to be determined.  For one whale, the cause of death was chronic entanglement.  For the other four whales, blunt trauma was either the suspected or the probable cause of death. These four whales had been struck by the hull of a vessel in waters worked by snow crabbers.

In 2018, no right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  In 2019, nine right whales died.  Two whales were found together on the same day in June off the Acadian Peninsula in northeastern New Brunswick. They seemed not have been entangled with fishing gear.

Three whales were observed swimming with rope entanglements.  One of these whales had been observed in April in the Gulf of Maine trailing a line of rope from underneath its body. These whales were in New Brunswick waters closed to fishing.

The Canadian government is considering putting tracking devices on whales suffering from entanglements.  They are reluctant to take risks freeing whales of lines.

Overall, how are right whales doing sharing seascapes with humans? In 2013, the reported North Atlantic right whale population peaked at 476, having climbed from 291 in the 1990’s. The population appeared to drop in 2014. Today, the right whale population is estimated at about 400. (Canadian government estimates 411.)

In 2015, researchers went farther afield in search of whales.  The first survey of the Gulf of St. Lawrence was held in western portions near Prince Edward Island.  Forty to forty-five right whales were sighted.  The same number was found in 2016.  The fateful summer of 2017, 100 North Atlantic right whales were documented in western reaches of the Gulf.

Indubitably, the Gulf of St. Lawrence has become an important habitat for North Atlantic right whales.  In this magnificent place, there is hope for right whales.

There are compelling indications of even more right whales. Genetic profiling of the right whales calving off of Southeastern US found that, when sampled again in summering areas, only 60% of all known calves were with their mothers.  The remaining 40% of calves were not observed on known summering grounds.

Right whale paternity analysis found fathers of only 45% of known calves have been genetically determined.  Since genetic profiles have been determined for 69% of all photo-identified males, the population of male right whales is likely larger than reported.

For the people of the high granite outcropped shores of Newfoundland as well as those of the lobster-red sandstone ledges of Prince Edward Island, the wonder is what took the right whales so long to rediscover spectacular seascapes resplendent with nutrient rich waters.

The answer may be global warming climate-driven changes to the whale’s ecosystem.  The summer when surprisingly few right whales were observed in the Bay of Fundy, a decrease in their food was also found.  The population of the most abundant zoo plankton organism, a copepod called Calanus finmarchicus, had dropped.  Plankton are organisms that drift with the ocean currents.  So the population decline in the high-fat sesame-sized crustaceans was thought to be due to a shift in the oceans currents. This was most disconcerting because this is the place where whales stoke up, putting down fat reserves, to make it through a low diet winter in clear waters off the coast of Georgia.

Ocean currents are shifting because so much of the planet’s heat energy is prevented from escaping into outer space by greenhouse gasses. 93.4% of the retained energy is going into the ocean.  When water warms, it expands, becomes less dense, causing sea levels to rise and circulation patterns to shift.

The motion in the oceans’ currents is primarily driven by the rising of warm waters and the sinking of dense cold briny waters.  The ocean’s thermohaline circulation is also called meridional overturning circulation.  The direction of ocean currents is caused by the Earth’s rotation, known as the Coriolis effect.

Global warming induced climate change is melting the polar ice cap. Sea ice that once covered two-thirds of the Arctic Ocean, today covers less than one third and is on average shrinking. As a result, there is twice as much open seawater to freeze come October.

Fulmar flies before iceberg in East Greenland. Photo Rob Moir, Ocean River Institute

When sea water freezes, salt is expelled so the water molecules can align in a crystalline structure, ice.  Icebergs float one-eighth above the sea because the water is denser with salt. (Icebergs float level in fresh water.) Salt left behind in the freezing of sea ice makes the adjacent cold water even denser.  Denser water sinks.

With more sea ice formation in the Arctic, more seawater is flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Cold, nutrient-rich dense Arctic water slams into warm nutrient poor Atlantic water in the Denmark Strait. There the Arctic water plunges down 11,000 feet in the world’s largest waterfall to form the Greenland midwater current. This water flows south along East Greenland, around Cape Farewell and then north along West Greenland.  In Baffin Bay, the right-hand bearing current turns around, returning to the Labrador Sea to become the Labrador Current.

The Gulf of Maine is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by Browns Bank below Nova Scotia and by Georges Bank above Cape Cod.  The connecting deep water Northeast Passage is only about sixty miles wide.

The amount of Labrador Current water entering the Gulf of Maine varies from year to year, unexpectedly, much like the arrival of hurricanes (too many factors in play to measure and model). The technical terms for the volume of Labrador Current entering the Gulf of Maine are barn door open, barn door closed, and barn door ajar.

When researchers find a warming of water in the deep basins it indicates less Labrador Current water and more Slope Water. When “the barn door is closed” to the Labrador Current, warmer, less-dense Slope Water fills in.

More water flowing out of the Arctic Ocean is in turn driving a stronger flowing Gulf Stream.  This was evident in October 2011, when the Gulf Stream meandered up onto the continental shelf closer to the U.S. than ever recorded.  (A river dissipates excess energy laterally by meandering, much like a train crash sending rail cars in crumpled zig-zag.)

In 2007, the Gulf Stream surfaced in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago on the threshold between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. This commenced the melt of glaciers on the land. Heat brought to Northern Europe by the Gulf Stream set record high temperatures.  Warm midwater is increasingly flowing back into the Arctic Ocean furthering the summer melt of sea ice. A positive feedback loop is completed.

Surface currants in the Gulf of Maine are no less fickle. Fresh water from off the land tongues and pools on top of briny Shelf Water. The Gulf of Maine is like a layer cake.  Labrador Current water on the bottom; then Slope Water, Shelf Water, and surface water frosting.

Surface waters run deep in the summer due to winter snow melt and spring rains. In winter, surface waters become more diffuse and less distinct.  Summer of 2013 saw such extreme wet and hot weather over the land, that surface water temperatures rose 4 degrees Fahrenheit, a legendary warming that was greater than reports from any other ocean water body. In 2014, surface water temperatures were cooler.

With extreme weather events have come variations in ocean currents. Shifting currents moved out of reach the herring that puffins relied on to feed their chicks. Shifting currents may be why researchers are finding less copepods in the right whale grounds at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

However, researchers are also finding less phytoplankton, the food of copepods. A factor could also be pollutants.  Likely more herbicides and pesticides are being applied to clear power lines and to manage over-fertilized lawns. (Lawns with quick-release fertilizer have shallow roots, less resilience and have more need for pesticides and herbicides. Lawns without fertilizer put down deeper roots, are more resilient, and put on more foliage capturing more carbon.)

Right whale Photo by Jessica Taylor, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium

Whether the right whales came to the Gulf of St. Lawrence out of necessity, due to an inconvenience of where the shoals of copepods were, or by choice due to a growing population exceeding its habitat, does not matter.  The Gulf of St. Lawrence provides vast watery realms where whales stoke up on shoals of plankton.  Right whales have expanded their range.  The benefit for us are more opportunities to view magnificent right whales without disturbing them. In the majestic company of right whales, life is better for us all.