Spoiler Alert: I happen to be in Lark Harbor Newfoundland when a right whale was found dead over the mountain in Cedar Cove. I spoke with the locals and learned they knew of ten right whales in their neighborhood, likely not part of the whale count made closer to PEI. While 13 dead right whales dead, ten dead in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, is a tragedy, these deaths may cause a paradigm expansion, if not shift, in our understanding of the North Atlantic right whale population and where else they go summer and winter. Here are compelling reasons why there are more North Atlantic right whale than the reported 525. It began with listening and observing locally. I invite you to add your right whale observations and thoughts in a comment below.
The tenth right whale known to die in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was found in Cedar Cove, Newfoundland. Nobody lives in Cedar Cove because it is on the outside of the Bay of Islands facing weather that rushes head-long across the Gulf of Saint 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.
August 2, 2017, the day the whale was found, I was offshore of Cedar Cove on a tall sailing ship, the bark Europa. We had anchored the night before in the harbor named for the HMS Lark that was in this place 250 years ago. We cleared the Bay of Islands in the morning and headed south along the western shore before Cedar Cove. The wind was very light from the north. In addition to the five square sails on fore and main masts, plus gaft-rigged mainsail on the mizzen, stunsails were set with clews pulled out on whisker poles, three above each other on either side of the foremast sails.
The next day I was told of the dead whale by a crew member from Corner Brook. This was not the first right whale to perish close by the Bay of Islands. A right whale was also found dead in Chimney Cove on the outer shore just north of the Bay of Islands. The local knowledge was that eight right whales were feeding in the mouth of the Bay of Islands. This is arguably Newfoundland’s most important estuary due to the cold waters that flow down the Humber River from Deer Lake. This is a strong salmon run with grilse, small salmon, and salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Here’s proof of a healthy ecosystem.
This summer a right whale was also found dead in the very Southwest corner of Newfoundland at Cape Ray, fifteen miles west of Port Aux Basques. A fourth right whale was found 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.
There were seven Corner Brook residents on board the ship. With long night watches, we talked. For them the tragedy of right whale deaths was eclipsed by the joy and pride that North Atlantic right whales were summering in their neighborhood. The challenge is that right whales are very difficult to see. They swim slowly with mouth open filtering 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 plates hitting one another.
They lack the speed, wheel and splash of fin and humpback whales. They do not have a dorsal fin. Flat-backed, slow moving, a right whale on the water looks much a like floating log. What is distinctive off the sands of Provincetown is not so obvious in Bay of Islands because Corner Brook has at the water’s edge mountains of logs piled next to the paper mill.
Eight right whales were individually known. Two of the dead whales had unique callosity markings, clearly not of the seen whales. The other two whales found dead were too far gone to be individually identified. At least ten whales were on the west coast of Newfoundland, likely more.
North of the Magdalen Islands a badly decomposed right whale was found bobbing on the surface.
West on the other side of the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence close by Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, five right whales were found dead. One right whale was found on the northern most cape of Prince Edwards Island near Norway. 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 Saint Lawrence is roughly 91,000. These are spacious seas where North Atlantic right whales dwell.
The trouble for right whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is that it drains the Great Lakes. This means more boat traffic, strikes, and more pollution, lessening fertility from toxic chemicals that bio-accumulate in fat cells passed from mother whales to young, as well as more harmful algal blooms. The Canadian government is responding by slowing ships and reducing fixed fishing gear to tangle with. Only we can reduce harmful chemicals and harmful algal blooms.
In 2013 the reported North Atlantic right whale population peaked at 476, having climbed from 291 in the late 1990’s. The population appeared to drop a bit in 2014. So, in 2015 the first survey of the Gulf of Saint 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. This summer 100 North Atlantic right whales were documented in western reaches of the Gulf.
Indubitably, for North Atlantic right whales the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is an important habitat area not yet well described. In this magnificent place, there is hope (and not “catastrophic lost”) for right whales. New summer residencies for right whales are all the more meaningful when the winter location of much of the right whale population is unknown. The good news are reports the population of North Atlantic right whales is 525 whales.
There are compelling indications of even more right whales. The wintering grounds for much of the population is not known. Genetic studies 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 question is not why would right whales leave the Gulf of Maine. They wonder what took the right whales so long to rediscover spectacular seascapes. I believe the answer is due in part to fishermen sinking and reducing fixed gear lines, and to ship operators slowing to ten knots when whales are nearby.
For the right whales once on the brink of extinction, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence provides vast watery realms where whales stoke up on shoals of plankton. For us, here are more opportunities to view right whales without disturbing them. This is a wonderful benefit for everyone. With right whales, knowing of their outsized majestic presence, life is better for us all.
Feeling better for right whales, I am more concerned with sperm whales of the NE Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, as I explain in this short video.