Scientists alarmed after four gray whales found dead in San Francisco Bay

Deaths discovered over a course of nine days are ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ for the species, says expert

Photo provided by the Marine Mammal Center shows an adult female gray whale that washed up on Muir Beach in California this week.
An adult female gray whale that washed up on Muir Beach in California this week. Photograph: AP

Oliver Milman and agencies@olliemilmanSat 10 Apr 2021 12.35 EDT


Four dead gray whales have washed up on beaches in the San Francisco Bay area in the past nine days, in the latest spate of whale deaths in the region.

One whale died after being struck by a ship, authorities confirmed, with investigations under way into the other mortalities.

The carcass of a 41ft adult female gray whale landed at San Francisco’s Crissy Field on 31 March. A second adult female was found last Saturday in Moss Beach in San Mateo county. A third was found on Wednesday floating near the Berkeley Marina and the following day one washed up in Marin county’s Muir Beach.AdvertisementThe scandal that wasn’t: Republicans deflated asnation shrugs at Hunter Biden revelations00:03/01:41SKIP AD

A necropsy of the whale at Muir Beach revealed significant bruising and hemorrhaging to muscle around the jaw and neck vertebrae consistent with blunt force trauma due to ship strike. Experts noted the whale was in good body condition based on the blubber layer and internal fat levels. It is still uncertain how the other three whales died, or if starvation was behind their deaths.

“It’s alarming to respond to four dead gray whales in just over a week because it really puts into perspective the current challenges faced by this species,” said Dr Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center (MMC).

In 2019, the MMC was involved in looking into why 13 dead whales washed up ion the Bay Area. The National Park Service reported the year previously that a “large number” of dead whales were being found.

Whales are threatened by a variety of human interventions, including entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. The climate crisis is heating up and acidifying the ocean, altering the availability of prey.

Biologists have reported several recent cases of malnutrition in gray whales in the region. Nearly one in four gray whales migrating along the US west coast has died since the last recorded population surveys in 2015 and 2016, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The MMC said losses could be even greater due to the limited boat and aerial surveys taken during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gray whales in Baja California, where they mate and give birth before heading north.
Gray whales in Baja California, where they mate and give birth before heading north. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images


Each winter, the whales migrate 10,000 miles to Mexican waters, where they mate and birth calves near the coast of Baja California. They head back north and stay off the coast of California in spring and summer to feed on anchovies, sardines and krill before continuing on their northerly migration to cool, food-rich Arctic waters.

“This many dead whales in a week is shocking, especially because these animals are the tip of the iceberg,” said Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. Experts estimate the washed-up whales represent just 10% of the total dead, with the rest sinking into the sea unnoticed by humans.

Monsell said California lawmakers needed to require fishing gear that does not use rope and federal regulators should set mandatory speed limits for ships.

“Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements kill many whales that we never see,” she said.

An Entire Group of Whales Has Somehow Escaped Human Attention

An Entire Group of Whales Has Somehow Escaped Human Attention (

J. B. MacKinnon  7 hrs ago

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The marine biologist Jay Barlow likes to say that he went looking for the last of the Ice Age mastodons and instead bumped into a unicorn. It’s a land-based metaphor to help us, a landlubbing species, make sense of what he witnessed late last year, though in fact the mystery unfolded entirely out of sight of land.

In 2014, a team of scientists described acoustic recordings taken far off the coast of California that they suspected were the clicks and buzzes of the Perrin’s beaked whale, the mastodon in Barlow’s metaphor. Though they include 23 known species ranging in size from the pygmy beaked whale, which is about as long as a small hatchback, to the Baird’s beaked whale, which can be nearly the scale of a cargo trailer, beaked whales as a group have remained overlooked cousins of the dolphins and great whales to the present day. Perrin’s beaked whales were among the most obscure of the obscure. Known only from a few carcasses washed ashore in California, they had never been documented alive in the wild.

Four years after those first recordings, acoustic data collected during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey captured the same noise pattern. This time it was concentrated around a nameless, undersea ridgetop in the open Pacific Ocean—the middle of nowhere, really—located about 350 kilometers south of the United States–Mexico border. “It was really abundant there,” Barlow, who specializes in marine mammals, told me. “We thought, well, this is good news, maybe we found a spot where the density of the Perrin’s beaked whale is high enough that we might actually have a chance to be the first people to see them.”

It took awhile to put together an expedition during a pandemic year. But on November 15, 2020, a search team co-led by Barlow, the U.S. Navy marine researcher Elizabeth Henderson, and Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a scientist with the agency responsible for protected areas in Mexico, set sail from a port on the Baja Peninsula. They were aboard a sailboat provided and crewed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as part of a research campaign called Operation Divina Guadalupe—a reference to the image of the Virgin Mary that many Mexicans turn to when they need a miracle.

Active surveying for whales began on the second day at sea; the team saw only a few dolphins. By first light on the third day, the boat was floating nearly a kilometer above the flanks of the unnamed submarine peak where NOAA’s recordings had been made. As a general rule, beaked whales are hard to spot: They slip to the surface rather than surge to it, release no “Thar she blows” puff of exhaled mist, and can easily be hidden by waves kicked up from a gentle breeze. This day, however, the sea was so calm that, looking over the rails of the boat, the crew could see their reflections. “Beaked-whale weather,” Barlow said.

The search started at 6 a.m., with the sun still below the horizon. Eight minutes later, three beaked whales surfaced so close that the scientists didn’t even need to lift their binoculars to see them.

If beaked whales can be hard to see, they are even more difficult to identify. Most look like oversize, thuggish dolphins: They’re often described as cigar shaped, but if so, the cigar is a perfecto, thick through the middle and tapering to the tip and tail. They mainly come in muted tones of gray-brown to blue, often with stripes or polka dots. Neither pattern is as charming as it sounds. The stripes are thought to be scars from underwater battles between males. The polka dots are scars left by the cookiecutter shark, a thalassophobia-inducing creature with jaws designed to remove round plugs of flesh. They sometimes punch permanent holes through beaked whales’ fins.

Telling beaked-whale species apart often comes down to the teeth, a task complicated by the fact that, for the most part, beaked whales are toothless. In nearly all cases, only the males have visible teeth, and usually just one on each side of the lower jaw. The position of these teeth is often distinctive, and their form can be, too: Some resemble ginkgo leaves, others the oblong flensing spades used by 19th-century whalers. The tusks of the strap-toothed whale grow up and across the snout, like a bone ribbon that ties the mouth nearly shut. This apparently causes no problems, because beaked whales—keeping it weird—neither bite nor chew their food. They are suction feeders, drinking in their meals rather than eating them, and they’re also teuthivorous, meaning they primarily eat squid. To do so through a narrower mouth opening only makes the process akin to slurping up noodle soup without cutlery.

When the beaked whales surfaced near the Sea Shepherd boat, the scientists scrambled to make observations, take photographs, and deploy acoustic-recording buoys: Beaked whales are notoriously skittish. Yet these whales lingered for more than an hour, seemingly as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about them. A diver even managed to record some underwater video. Ticking through observations of the whales’ size, coloration, and head shape, the team was soon confident that they weren’t looking at any of the area’s better-known species. “We assumed that these would be Perrin’s beaked whale,” Barlow said. They had found the last mastodons, deep in their hidden valley.

A photograph taken by Henderson seemed to clinch the case. Male Perrin’s beaked whales have their teeth near the tip of the beak, or rostrum, and the image appeared to show just that. On closer inspection, however, the “teeth” turned out to be glints of sunshine. When other photos seemed to show teeth near the midpoint of the jaw, the hope that they had seen Perrin’s beaked whales began to slip away.

“I didn’t want to believe it at the time,” Barlow said. They began to compare their images and audio to descriptions of every other species of beaked whale, trying to make a match. At last, another possibility dawned: that what they had witnessed was not the never-before-seen-alive Perrin’s beaked whale, but a new species entirely. In other words, the metaphorical unicorn: a kind of beaked whale—in this case, an animal twice the size of a bottlenose dolphin and as heavy as a plow-pulling horse—that had somehow gone unnoticed, never known to be seen dead or alive by human eyes. “We were all giddy,” Henderson told me. “There might have been some dancing.”

Back onshore, the news was welcomed as a sign that, just possibly, the human race has not yet left its gaudy thumbprint everywhere. The excitement was heightened by the fact that it was the second year in a row that such a “unicorn” had been reported: In 2019, scientists announced that what had always been considered a smaller, darker variety of the Baird’s beaked whale—one of the best known of the little-known family of beaked whales—was in fact a different species hiding in its cousin’s shadow. That such large animals could remain out of sight on a planet teeming with people and our panopticon technologies into the third decade of the 21st century seemed almost beyond belief.

Whales as a whole are apostates. Life on our planet began in the water and moved onto the land, an evolution that is often represented—in graphics that show fish growing legs and ending up as human beings—as progress. Yet the cetaceans, that grouping of creatures that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises, reversed the trend. They came ashore, took a look around—and returned to the sea, turning their backs on what would become the human dominion.

Beaked whales were the most emphatic about it. If you have never heard of beaked whales before now, rest assured you are not alone. Other cetaceans appear in the Bible, were carved into rock more than 5,000 years ago in Norway, turn up on fourth-century bas-reliefs. I found a single possible reference to a beaked whale in early art: a playful glass sculpture from Greece that depicts a cetacean with a long, birdlike beak but without the tall fin of a dolphin. Coastal cultures have always known about beaked whales, from animals stranded onshore or glimpsed at sea, but such events were probably as uncommon in antiquity as they are today. The most consistent impression the whales have left on humans is that their flesh and blubber make for dubious eating; a 13th-century Icelandic text gives fair warning that the rendered fat “runs right through” not only humans “or any other animal,” but even vessels made of wood or horn.

In 1823, the French zoologist Georges Cuvier examined the skull of an unknown sea creature and concluded that it was the fossilized remains of an extinct cetacean; the Cuvier’s beaked whale is now believed to be the most widespread of the beaked whales, ranging nearly throughout the world’s oceans. The British scientist William Flower, one of the first people who might fairly be described as anything like a beaked-whale expert, had the following to say in 1872: “Their very presence in the ocean seems to pass unnoticed and unsuspected by voyagers, and even by those whose special occupation is the pursuit and capture of various better known and more abundant cetaceans.” In other words, beaked whales have, with few exceptions, remained at such a remove from human existence that we have never made a habit of hunting and killing them.

Much of our knowledge of beaked whales is still emerging from a vast memento mori of bones and tissues gathered from stranded specimens and housed in the world’s museums. Chris Stinson, a curatorial assistant at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, is a beaked-whale aficionado (“I just like things that nobody knows anything about,” he told me) and once spent 12 days on a whale survey off Canada’s west coast, during which he logged just about every kind of whale out there—except beaked whales. The closest he has come to an encounter with them is still the museum’s collection of skeletal remains.

He pulled out 10 sets of bones for me. Lifting a Hubbs’ beaked whale skull, it was humbling to think that I could dedicate the rest of my life to seeing the species alive in the wild, and would probably fail. (Humankind’s only truly close encounter with living Hubbs’ whales involved two stranded juveniles who were placed in captivity in a California oceanarium 30 years ago; both died in less than a month.) The skull was an awkward armload. Bizarrely, its size, shape, and long, narrow bill brought to mind the head of Big Bird from Sesame Street, but with none of bird-bone’s lightness: It had heft and density. Without Stinson’s help, I would never have guessed where the eye socket was, and would not have been sure which side was up or down.

“You can’t even tell it’s a skull, really,” Stinson said. “Back in 1997, when I first moved to the West Coast, if I had seen one of these washed up on a beach, I would have thought it was some kind of crazy alien.”

Ironically for animals so little known to us, many beaked whales are named after people—white men, to be exact. (One exception is Deraniyagala’s beaked whale, identified in 1963 from a carcass examined by Paul Deraniyagala, director of the national museums of what is now Sri Lanka.) Most of these men likely never saw a beaked whale alive. The first field studies didn’t begin until the late 1980s, when Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia began to make excursions to the Gully, an underwater canyon 200 kilometers off Canada’s east coast, to research a species of beaked whale called the northern bottlenose whale.

The people who first studied beaked whales in the wild tended to share a similar experience: When they first set out, they were warned that their ambitions were hopeless, because the whales are so rarely seen. Diane Claridge is one such pioneer, having studied beaked whales in the Bahamas since 1991. She told me that even now, having discovered that the Bahamas have long-term, largely site-specific populations of Blainville’s beaked whales, and with three decades of accumulated knowledge about how and where to find them, she still only locates them on about 80 percent of field days—and doesn’t even bother to go looking if the ocean isn’t calm. The sightings often come after hours of searching, and then might involve only brief observations before the animals dive.

“Our notes are like, ‘Up. Down. Up. Down,’” Claridge said.

“Our notes say, ‘Went to this location, searched for an hour. Went to this location, searched for an hour,’” added Charlotte Dunn, her colleague at the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization.

“There’s not many people in the world who would want our job,” Claridge said.

Today, thanks to a handful of dedicated researchers around the globe, four species of beaked whale are relatively well studied: the northern bottlenose whale, Baird’s beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, and Blainville’s beaked whale. That leaves 19 species of beaked whales—again, creatures of a size that would seem tricky to lose track of—that are somewhere between mysteries and total enigmas. If the species spotted by Operation Divina Guadalupe off Baja last year is confirmed to be a new one, the tally will rise to 20.

When the first handbook dedicated exclusively to beaked whales was finally published in 2017, the authors declared them “the least known of all the large animals in the world.” We know more about certain dinosaurs than some living beaked whales. Yet they are out there right now, perfectly familiar to themselves, perhaps rolling at the surface in a gale, or, in the words of one scientist, “singing their clicks and whistles into the abyss.” They have not needed to come from outer space in order to be otherworldly. They’ve only needed a parallel universe: the life aquatic of the deep sea.

Beaked whales are diving whales, or else, as some now say, they are surfacing whales. It’s a matter of emphasis, of orientation. To call them diving whales is to say that they live at the surface and visit the depths. To call them surfacing whales turns the formula around.

There are few signs that beaked whales take pleasure in time spent at the interface between water and air. When at or even near the surface, they are usually dead silent. They don’t hang around for long, either, often only a minute or two before disappearing. Night and day, probably year-round, they are either making deep dives or preparing to do so, a metronomic pattern that suggests they prefer to spend their time in the lightless waters far below, but regrettably need to breathe air to do so.

“They’re just on this really tight cycle,” Dunn said. “It’s like they don’t have any time to do anything else. Work, sleep; work, sleep.”

Dives of 1,500 meters are ordinary. The deepest on official record is nearly 3,000 meters, but only because a plunge measured at 3,568 meters was discounted due to the fact that the whale’s satellite tag had only been pressure tested to three kilometers of depth. Then there’s the fact that submersibles have photographed large gouges in the seafloor that resemble marks made elsewhere by beaked whales, but they run as deep as 4,258 meters below the surface—two and a half miles down. “I don’t know what to think about this, as it’s super deep and seems insane,” said Nicola Quick, who has studied beaked-whale diving as a research scientist with Duke University’s marine lab.

Yet it is in the deep-water “midnight zone” that beaked whales seem to come to life. There, safe from predators like sharks and killer whales, in cold darkness lit only occasionally by the ghostly glow of luminescent sea creatures, they burst into the sounds they use to echolocate their prey. Somewhere beneath the waves, too, is where the behaviors human eyes have never seen—from males slashing each other with their tusks in battles for dominance to couples mating to the basic act of feeding—presumably take place. The beaked whales might even nap as they tumble into the abyss—scientists have no clear sense, really, of how they otherwise fit enough rest into their 24-hour diving cycle.

“They do things they are not supposed to be able to,” says Andreas Fahlman, a research scientist with the Fundación Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain. The essence of how beaked whales have escaped our attention is not how deep they dive, but how long they stay down there. People have forever been fascinated by animals that live in water but, like us, must hold their breath when they’re under it. In an early exploration of such creatures’ limits, the American physiologist Laurence Irving once held a muskrat under water for 12 minutes, only to watch it dive again the moment he let it go. (He gave up on a beaver after just six minutes, when it started thrashing.) At the time, Irving was aware of whalers’ reports that northern bottlenose whales could linger underwater for two hours. Such claims sounded apocryphal.

MORE: An Entire Group of Whales Has Somehow Escaped Human Attention (

Coronavirus pandemic slowdown has made the oceans quieter, which has been good for whales

Not only has pandemic helped accelerate the end of commercial whale hunting, ambient noise in the world’s oceans is also way down.

March 28, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT / Updated March 28, 2021, 8:05 AM PDTBy Sarah Harman and Carlo Angerer

HÚSAVÍK, Iceland — Surrounded by snow-covered mountain ranges, this tiny town on Iceland’s north coast has become the “whale capital” of the country — whale watching is its lifeblood.

“It’s probably the most popular activity for visitors, foreign and domestic,” Heimir Hardarson, captain at North Sailing, said.

As one of the pioneers of whale watching in Iceland, Hardarson has taken people onto ocean waters for nearly 30 years to experience a close encounter with some of the largest animals in the world.

“Very mystical creatures,” he said, “floating around in their weightlessness.”

Image:: Captain Heimir Hardarson takes whale watchers out on his boat in Husavik, Iceland.
Captain Heimir Hardarson takes whale watchers out on his boat in Húsavík, Iceland.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

On a recent morning, Hardarson took a handful of visitors on his boat that usually holds 90 passengers to spot humpback and fin whales in Skjalfandi Bay.

Visitor numbers have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But the global slowdown has actually been good for the whales, as human interference has decreased. Ambient noise in the world’s oceans from cruise ships, sonar and construction is way down.

For more on this story watch TODAY this morning at 8 a.m. ET.

“I think, overall, the pandemic has largely been a positive for whales,” said Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist and biologist with the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He is studying how the quieter oceans have affected whales by measuring their stress levels through hormone samples. Friedlaender said animals use acoustics such as whale songs to communicate with one another and locate food. Noise in the environment can interfere with those communications and other critical life functions

“The thought is that as you decrease the amount of human activity and noisy environment, we’re going to see a decrease in the stress hormone levels of these animals,” he said.

Image: Husavik on Iceland's north coast has become the "whale capital" of the country.
Húsavík on Iceland’s north coast has become the “whale capital” of the country.VW Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty file

Friedlaender said stress affects whales similarly to how it has an impact on humans, changing their behavior and ability to perform physically and mentally. Stress can also lead to long-term changes affecting a whale’s overall health and its ability to reproduce.

“The animal may not reproduce as frequently as it would have otherwise,” he said. “If it doesn’t reproduce as frequently, the population doesn’t have the opportunity to grow as quickly, or to maintain its population growth.”

The pandemic has had an even more concrete impact on the whale population off Iceland’s coast: It has helped accelerate the end of commercial whale hunting.


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Iceland is one of only three countries in the world that still allow commercial whaling, the other two being Japan and Norway, and last year two Icelandic whaling companies halted hunting operations due to health restrictions. Operators told local media that social distancing regulations would make the usual processing onboard impossible.

“I’m never going to hunt whales again, I’m stopping for good,” Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the minke whaling company IP-Utgerd, told the news agency Agence France-Presse last year. And demand has continued to fall.

“There’s no need to hunt the whales anymore. There’s no need to eat them,” said Eva Björk Káradóttir, director of the Húsavík Whale Museum. “The young generation born after 2000 don’t really do it.”

Image: Captain Heimir Hardarson takes whale watchers out on his boat in Husavik, Iceland.
Captain Heimir Hardarson has taken people onto ocean waters for nearly 30 years to experience a close encounter with some of the largest animals in the world.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

In fact, much of the demand for whale meat within Iceland had been from tourists who wanted to try it during their visits, she said. Icelanders have re-examined their relationship to whales in recent decades.

“I think tourism started and we started to get just people from all over the world. We got a new perspective, and it’s just in that time that we realized really that our land is beautiful, our water is good and also that people were interested in whales,” she said.

Hardarson, the captain of the whale watching boat, said that people have stopped eating whale meat for several reasons, including realizing the senselessness of killing an animal that can live for almost a century. And he highlighted another simple reason, as well.

“They are worth way more alive than dead,” he said. “I think there’s going to be no commercial whaling, and in the future. I can see no reason why there should be.”

Image: Captain Heimir Hardarson, on his boat in Husavik, Iceland.
Captain Heimir Hardarson said he did not think commercial whaling would take place in the future. Carlo Angerer / NBC News

He acknowledged that animals are also affected by whale watching tours but said the experience helps motivate people to protect them.

“There are threats also connected to whale watching and something you have to keep in mind to try not to overstress or put too much pressure on the resource in this way,” he said. “We are very concerned about this, so we are trying to keep down speed and we are trying to minimize our carbon footprint.”

His hope now is that with tourism growing as Iceland allows vaccinated visitors to enter the country without having to quarantine, whale watching will once again be big business, helping to support the animals and the whole town.

New bill could eliminate whale entanglements, hurt crab fishery


The Whale Entanglement Prevention Act introduced on Feb. 10 proposes that trap fisheries such as the crabbing industry use ropeless gear by Nov. 1, 2025, to stop the injury or accidental death of endangered marine to enlarge

  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • GEAR CONTROVERSY Dungeness crab fishermen say they oppose new legislation that would mandate ropeless gear because it’s not effective and it’s overpriced.

Authored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) in collaboration with Social Compassion in Legislation and the Center for Biological Diversity, Assembly Bill 534 argues that crabbers use antiquated trapping gear that needlessly harms marine life.

California Coast Crab Association President Bejamin Platt said the industry has been against ropeless gear because it’s not cost-effective—the current price for the gear is more than $1,700.

“This is a particularly expensive gear type that no fisherman could afford and its incredibly slow and inefficient compared to what we do,” Platt said.

Dungeness crab fisherman typically use circular steel traps that are submerged onto the seafloor. The traps are attached to lines marked by floats on the sea’s surface that fisherman can pull to retrieve their traps.

The legislation proposes crabbers use ropeless gear with wireless technology that summons the trap back to the surface. However, several start-ups are still in the gear prototype testing phase.

Platt said that the fisherman have less than a minute to pull a pot from the ocean, rebait it, and put it back in the water.

“This [ropeless] gear, which every prototype that we’ve seen so far takes from eight to 10 minutes for each pot to be called back. It’s an electronic signal that has failed 20 percent of the time. So if I’ve got a 400-pot permit on my boat and I lost 20 percent of my gear every time I went out to try this gear, I would lose 80 pots. I’d be out of business within a couple of trips,” he said.

Platt said mandating ropeless gear will mean the end of the Dungeness crab fishery.

The Dungeness crab industry has taken its own steps to reduce the potential for entaglements. On March 2020, Fish and Wildlife approved the Lost or Abandoned Dungeness Crab Trap Gear Retrieval Program, a practice that Platt said many ports in the state already participate in.

At the end of every season, fishermen go out into ocean and look for abandoned or lost traps and return them to the owner, who pays a fee for its return. If the owner refuses to accept a crabpot’s return, their permit allocation is reduced. The industry also created a best practicies guide, which calls for reducing the length of the buoy lines attached to traps.

AB 534 is the Center for Biological Diversity’s latest move in its pursuit to eliminate entanglements. In 2017, the organization sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for failing to prevent commercial Dungeness crab gear from entangling, injuring, and killing humpback whales, blue whales, and sea turtles in violation the Endangered Species Act.

The parties settled the lawsuit the following year and created the Risk Assessment Mitigation Program (RAMP), which looks at data and analyzes where/when entanglement risks are higher to dictate the start or closure of Dungeness crab fishing seasons. Center of Biological Diversity Oceans Legal Director Kristen Monsell told New Times that while the RAMP regulations are a good first step, it doesn’t eliminate the risk to marine life entirely.

“Those regulations only apply to commercial Dungeness crab gear. We know that whales and sea turtles are getting tangled up in other fishing gear,” Monsell said. Δ

The new humpback? Calf sighting sparks hope for imperilled right whale

Shy giant’s journey back from the brink of extinction has received less attention than its charismatic cetacean cousin{%22adsConfig%22:{%22adTagParameters%22:{%22iu%22:%22/59666047/,%22cust_params%22:%22sens%3Df%26si%3Df%26vl%3D0%26cc%3DUS%26s%3Denvironment%26inskin%3Df%26se%3Dseascape-the-state-of-our-oceans%26ct%3Darticle%26co%3Dashifa-kassam%26url%3D%252Fenvironment%252F2021%252Ffeb%252F18%252Fthe-new-humpback-calf-sighting-sparks-hope-for-im}}}&enablejsapi=1&origin=’s most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – videoSeascape: the state of our oceans is supported by

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

About this contentAshifa Kassam@ashifa_kThu 18 Feb 2021 01.00 EST


It was a memorable finale to a day out on the Atlantic: a four-metre whale calf gliding past the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Their incredible luck, however, would be made clear hours later, as researchers around the world clamoured for more details after seeing the 47-second video of the encounter online.

The divers had unwittingly stumbled across a North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered whales. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the recently born calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles away from the species’ usual haunts along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.

“When I realised what it was, my hair stood up on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And all of a sudden this newborn calf appears in El Hierro.”

This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years

Natacha Aguilar, marine biologist

More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any sign of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling wiped out all traces of the species from European waters.

A handful of sightings in European waters over the years had been linked to whales with a penchant for transatlantic journeys. But Aguilar was tantalised by another – albeit more unlikely – possibility. “It could suggest that the species could be starting to recolonise the north Atlantic on the European and African side.”

The sighting was a bright moment for scientists tracking a species that has long been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since 2017, records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or seriously injured – a devastating blow to a species that has dwindled to fewer than 400 members.

Most of these incidents have been linked to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales turned up snarled in fishing lines, nursing deep wounds from ship strikes or reeling from ocean noise, fear began to set in that the species would be the first great whale to become extinct in modern times.

A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off the coast off Daytona Beach, Florida.
A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off Daytona Beach, Florida. Photograph: NOAA/Alamy

It was an unnerving turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers – right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas and float when killed – the species was the first whale to be protected by law, in 1935.Advertisement

Safeguarded from commercial whaling, their numbers began to slowly increase, galvanising hope that the risk of extinction had been staved off.

Further optimism came from another species that had forged a remarkable comeback after as much as 90% of their population was wiped out by whaling: humpback whales, whose numbers have now climbed into the tens of thousands.

“Humpback whales are one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century,” says Chris Johnson of the WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “It’s not perfect but they’ve bounced back.”

Even at its lowest point, however, the global population of humpback whales was believed to number in the thousands – far exceeding the estimated population of 356 North Atlantic right whales in 2019.

“Are North Atlantic right whales the new humpback? I would say yes,” says Johnson. “In that we can succeed at this, too. But it’s going to take all of us. There are important decisions that we need to make in the next few years if we’re going to have species like the North Atlantic right whale around.”

A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada
A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. The whale can be easily identified by the white calluses on its head. Photograph: Brian J Skerry/NG/Getty

Central to saving these whales are the ships that ply the routes off the east coast of North America, as well as the fishers who harvest its waters, rich in lobster and snow crab. Data from US officials suggests that more than 85% of right whales, which can reach the length of a city bus and weigh as much as 70 tonnes, have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.Advertisement

Mitigation measures – put forward after right whales were found ensnared in hundreds of metres of heavy ropes or dragging traps that weigh as much as 60kg – have at times sparked protests from fishing communities who see such moves as an attack on their livelihoods.Calls from the deep: do we need to Save the Whales all over again?Read more

As a result, debate over how best to protect the whales has often been drawn out, wasting precious time for a species on the brink of extinction. “We can’t lose a single whale a year right now,” says Heather Pettis, a scientist at the New England Aquarium, Boston, US. “They really need some immediate action.”

The push for protections has been further complicated by a warming ocean. “This is climate change in action,” says Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “You have the most endangered large whale in the north Atlantic having to go further afield to find food because the Gulf of Maine is warming up.”

This search for food has been blamed for the whale’s increased presence in Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence, an area teeming with ship traffic. It’s a bitter twist on an earlier conservation victory: in 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the nearby Bay of Fundy to avoid an important area for the whales.

“When we think of climate change, we think of things happening like the glaciers melting over 100 years,” says Brown. “This has happened in a decade. The pace is phenomenal.”

A 9-year-old male North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick off Canada after being towed onto the shore the night before. The whale was known to researchers who said that in its short life it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear.
A 9-year-old North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick, Canada after being towed onto the shore. The whale was known to researchers who said it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear. Photograph: Nathan Klima/Boston Globe/Getty

The overlapping threats facing the whales hint at the complexity of the conservation issues involved, four decades after a groundswell of support pushed the International Whaling Commission to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling, says Greenpeace’s Willie Mackenzie.Advertisement

“Directly shooting them in the head with a harpoon is obviously a bad thing,” says Mackenzie. “But if we’re talking about ship strikes or fishing interactions, what’s the answer? You don’t get as many fish? You shouldn’t buy as much stuff? It’s not a direct cause and effect thing that people can understand very simply.”

He ascribes some of the success of the earlier campaign to imagery, whether it was the blood-soaked horror of commercial whaling captured by Greenpeace, or the awe-inspiring acrobatics of whales. The same strategy is now complicated by the fact that many of the species most at risk today are shyer and less well-known.

There’s a PR job here – humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much

Willie Mackenzie, Greenpeace

“There’s a PR job here and humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much,” he says, citing images of humpbacks spectacularly leaping out of the water or slapping their tails on the surface. “If you want to show people the majesty of a whale, that’s the picture you have to show them because they’re not going to be very excited about a black lump in the ocean or a really distant picture of something deep diving.”

Around the Canary Islands, more than six weeks after the North Atlantic right whale was spotted, researchers continue to search for clues. “Right now, there’s not much hope that it will appear again,” says Aguilar. “A newborn of that age is dependent on the mother. Maybe they’ve reunited and are still in the area. But if it is still not with its mother and has not been adopted by another whale, then it has died.”

Still, she is quick to characterise the sighting as a “historical moment” for the region. “It was a moment that gave me shivers and made me want to cry,” she says. “To have a whale considered extinct appear in the Canary Islands, it’s proof that nature, if we take care of it, has an enormous capacity to recover.”

How whales help cool the Earth

Share using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: Alamy)

Whales help to send carbon to the depths of the sea throughout their lives, and also when they die (Credit: Alamy)

By Sophie Yeo19th January 2021The world’s largest animals are unusually good at taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.S

Seeing a whale stranded on a beach often provokes a strong reaction. It can make people curious – beached whales can do strange things, like explode. It can also be upsetting to witness a creature so magnificent in water reduced to lifeless blubber on land. What rarely registers, however, is the lost opportunity for carbon sequestration.

Whales, particularly baleen and sperm whales, are among the largest creatures on Earth. Their bodies are enormous stores of carbon, and their presence in the ocean shapes the ecosystems around them. 

From the depths of the ocean, these creatures are also helping to determine the temperature of the planet – and it’s something that we’ve only recently started to appreciate.

“On land, humans directly influence the carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems through logging and the burning of forests and grasslands,” according to a 2010 scientific paper. “In the open ocean, the carbon cycle is assumed to be free of direct human influences.”

But that assumption neglects the surprising impact of whaling.

Whales are not only valuable in death. The tides of excrement that these mammals produce are also surprisingly relevant to the climate

Humans have killed whales for centuries, their bodies providing us with everything from meat to oil to whalebone. The earliest record of commercial whaling was in 1000 CE. Since then, tens of millions of whales have been killed, and experts believe that populations may have declined from anywhere between 66% and 90%.The bodies of whales, among the largest creatures on Earth, are huge stores of carbon (Credit: Alamy)

The bodies of whales, among the largest creatures on Earth, are huge stores of carbon (Credit: Alamy)

When whales die, they sink to the ocean floor – and all the carbon that is stored in their enormous bodies is transferred from surface waters to the deep sea, where it remains for centuries or more.

In the 2010 study, scientists found that before industrial whaling, populations of whales (excluding sperm whales) would have sunk between 190,000 to 1.9 million tonnes of carbon per year to the bottom of the ocean – that’s the equivalent of taking between 40,000 and 410,000 cars off the road each year. But when the carcass is prevented from sinking to the seabed – instead, the whale is killed and processed – that carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Andrew Pershing, a marine scientist at the University of Maine and an author of that study, estimates that over the course of the 20th Century whaling added about 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “This is a lot, but 15 million cars do this in a single year. The US currently has 236 million cars,” he says. 

But whales are not only valuable in death. The tides of excrement that these mammals produce are also surprisingly relevant to the climate.

Whales feed in the deep ocean, then return to the surface to breathe and poo. Their iron-rich faeces creates the perfect growing conditions for phytoplankton. These creatures may be microscopic, but, taken together, phytoplankton have an enormous influence on the planet’s atmosphere, capturing an estimated 40% of all CO2 produced – four times the amount captured by the Amazon rainforest.

“We need to think of whaling as being a tragedy that has removed a huge organic carbon pump from the ocean that would have been having a much larger multiplying effect on phytoplankton productivity and the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon,” says Vicki James, policy manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).Whale poo is a powerful fertiliser for the ocean's phytoplankton, which have a large potential to capture carbon (Credit: Alamy)

Whale poo is a powerful fertiliser for the ocean’s phytoplankton, which have a large potential to capture carbon (Credit: Alamy)

The ocean’s missing whales have had some unexpected impacts, too.

For instance, as whale populations declined, the orcas that predated them turned to smaller marine mammals like sea otters. The otters subsequently declined, leading to the spread of sea urchins, which munched away the kelp forests around the North Atlantic – with a knock-on effect on marine carbon sequestration.

The beauty of restoring whale populations is that there is plenty of space in the ocean – space once filled with whales

What this means is that restoring whale populations to their pre-whaling numbers could be an important tool in tackling climate change, sequestering carbon both directly and indirectly, and thus helping to make a small dent in the enormous volume of CO2 emitted by fossil fuels every year.

There have been various other proposals for how to achieve this reduction, including tree-planting and stimulating phytoplankton blooms by adding iron to the ocean, a form of geoengineering known as iron fertilisation. But tree-planting requires a scarce resource: terrestrial land, which may already be in use as another valuable habitat or farmland. The beauty of restoring whale populations is that there is plenty of space in the ocean – space once filled with whales.

The resulting plumes of whale poo would also vastly outstrip the potential of ocean iron fertilisation. It would take 200 successful blooms per year to match the potential of a fully restored whale population, according to Pershing’s study.Marine phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, acting as a carbon sink (Credit: Alamy)

Marine phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, acting as a carbon sink (Credit: Alamy)

And, unlike with risky geoengineering techniques, the benefits would not just accrue to the climate, but to the whole ecosystem.

“Whale carcasses provide a unique habitat for deep sea species, many of which are only found on these ‘whale falls’. Research has shown that a single skeleton can provide food and habitat for up to 200 species during the final stages of decay,” says WDC’s James.

In 2019, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a report looking at the benefits of putting whales back in the ocean. And they did it in a way that politicians would understand: by putting a dollar value on it. 

This study found that, when you add up the value of the carbon sequestered by a whale during its lifetime, alongside other benefits like better fisheries and ecotourism, the average great whale is worth more than $2m (£1.48m), with the entire global stock amounting to over $1tn (£740bn).

The economists behind this study are now working on a project to transform this price tag from theory into reality, through a mechanism known as carbon offsetting. The idea is to persuade carbon emitters to pay a certain amount of money to protect whale populations, rather than invest in reducing their own emissions, helping them to achieve a neutral carbon footprint.

“What you’re doing is valuing the service from the whales, because they’re sequestering carbon dioxide,” says Thomas Cosimano, one of the economists who co-authored the IMF paper. “It doesn’t mean that whales aren’t doing other things. This is just a benchmark we can use to establish a lower bound on what the value of the whale would be.”With the carbon-capturing potential of whales quantified, economists are devising an offsetting scheme centred on whales (Credit: Alamy)

With the carbon-capturing potential of whales quantified, economists are devising an offsetting scheme centred on whales (Credit: Alamy)

It’s a complicated scheme, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility: the team has been working on a similar carbon-market-based approach for protecting elephants from poachers in the central tropical forests of Africa, which is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

Already, a Chilean charity called the Fundación MERI is figuring out the foundations for a whale-based carbon market, installing early-warning acoustic buoys that will monitor the locations of whales and generate alternative routes for ships. It is believed to be the world’s first project to protect whales because of the carbon storage that they provide.

The IMF study concludes that whale protection must now become a top priority in the global effort to tackle climate change.

“Since the role of whales is irreplaceable in mitigating and building resilience to climate change, their survival should be integrated into the objectives of the 190 countries that in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement for combating climate risk,” the authors write.

Later this year, the UN climate conference will take place in Scotland, a country whose coasts regularly host species like minke and humpback whales. With a carbon market for whales now a real possibility, perhaps it’s time to put these creatures on the agenda.

How Whale Poo Is Powering the World’s Rainforests

TOPICS:EcologyNatural History MuseumRainforestWhales


Young Humpback Whale

The nutrients produced by whales when they poo has been found to fertilize the interior of forests around the world.

Big animals have the power to change the face of our planet: they sculpt woodlands, power ecosystems and can even help to fertilize the interior of rainforests.

Conservation is working to prevent the largest animals on Earth from sliding into extinction — and saving them could be more important than we ever realized.

Humans have been altering the environment for tens of thousands of years. One of the starkest consequences of this is the loss of many large animals, known collectively as megafauna, from much of the planet.

When people spread out of Africa and first arrived in places like the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, the land was dominated by some truly huge animals.

Giant ground sloths and armored glyptodons roamed across the savannas of South America, huge mammoths and cave bears were trampling around the chilly landscapes of Europe, while truly enormous wombat-like diprotodons and moas were to be found across much of Australia and New Zealand.

These species had a significant impact on the habitats in which they lived, and when they were driven to extinction, they left an ecological hole. But this wave of extinction is not over.

Those large animals that did survive the first round are now facing a similar threat. Elephants, rhinos, and some species of whales are all balancing on the edge of extinction.

It is only relatively recently, however, that we have begun to understand just how wide reaching the influence of these animals is on the natural world. Once we know more, it could change the way we go about protecting them.

Big animals are influencing environments such as the Amazon not only on national or international scales, but even global ones. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT/CIFOR

Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, has published a piece with colleagues that raises the question of how conservationists could think more globally.

“These big animals are iconic in a conservation sense and we are not arguing that we shouldn’t conserve them in their own right,” explains Ken. “But there are also a lot of fundamental things these animals do ecologically, and we are only just beginning to understand the really massive scales on which they operate.

“Currently we are not conserving those systems at scales large enough to protect and restore these key ecological roles. That is the point.”

The opinion piece has been published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The hidden power of whales

Large animals, such as elephants and whales, are often referred to as ecosystem engineers. This is because as they go about their day-to-day business, these huge animals alter their environment in such dramatic ways that they help to create and maintain entirely new habitats.

Elephants, for example, are so big that they will regularly push down trees to get to food from the upper branches, and as a result open up woodlands that allow understory plants to thrive in the sunshine. They are also known to help sustain entire rainforests as they spread the large seeds of fruit trees over vast distances before depositing them in little piles of natural fertilizer.

In the depths of the African rainforest, elephants create and maintain huge forest openings known as bais, which are then used by an array of other species from bongo antelopes to gorillas. Credit: Michelle Gadd/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

But these big animals have an impact on a much larger scale even than this.

“We didn’t realise until a few years ago just how important large animals are to large scale earth system processes,” explains Ken. These are the systems in which nutrients are cycled through the environment on a global scale.

“For example, there is research we cite which shows how important nutrients from the oceans are for massive biomes like the Amazon. You wouldn’t realize it, but there is a nutrient pump that exists which comes from the ocean up the rivers and onto the land.”

Animals such as whales and fish poop nutrients into the water. These nutrients help to fuel the plankton, which make their way into smaller fish. The fish are then either eaten by seabirds which in turn deposit their own poop on land, or feed larger migratory fish.

These fish then travel up the river systems and deep inland through the vast network of waterways. They will then be eaten by predators such as birds of prey and big cats, or simply die in the rivers, and as a result spread these nutrients that originated in the oceans over the land and deep within the forests.

“In recent years, some people have estimated how degraded those nutrient systems are because of the loss of large animals, and the impact has been massive,” explains Ken. “They estimate that certain nutrient pumps may have declined by over 80%, in part because of the removal of large animals such as whales.”

Migratory fish that originated in the oceans can be found spread across the forest floors, distributing nutrients far inland and feeding the forest. Credit: anttler (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Global cooperation

When it comes to protecting nature, conservation movements have tended to focus on saving specific species in particular locations.

Recently, scientists have been thinking more broadly. For example, transboundary conservation initiatives have been created which straddle multiple countries. But Ken and his colleagues argue that, while this is undoubtedly moving in the right direction, if we want to take into account the scale at which these nutrient cycles operate, we need to think bigger still.  

“There are some examples of this emerging, but we are still not up at the necessary levels of scale,” says Ken. “For example there is one of these transboundary conservation initiatives in the north west US and the west of Canada called Y2Y, where they have reintroduced wolves but conservation at these scales may still not be large enough.

“We need to be looking at ecosystems such as the Amazon which are millions of square kilometers.”

This might seem like an impossible challenge, but environmental initiatives of this scale have been achieved before, such as when the world’s governments came together to agree to fix the hole in the ozone layer or the international ban on whaling.

“It is an enormous challenge to reinstate these systems, but the impacts of not doing anything about it could be really severe,” says Ken. “We simply don’t know enough about this.

“We know that losing big animals is ecologically problematic at these massive scales, but we don’t know the exact impacts of losing them. How long have we got to sort out those issues, and what could be done about them?

“This is really a call to get people thinking about these problems and issues.”

Feds release plan to better prevent right whale deaths by entanglement

Doug FraserCape Cod Times

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration released a much-anticipated plan on Wednesday that it says will reduce North Atlantic right whale mortalities from entanglement in fishing gear by 60%.

The right whale is the most endangered great whale on the planet, with around 360 individuals remaining, including less than 100 breeding-age females.

The new plan achieves the 60% mortality reduction through new seasonally closed areas, increases in the number of pots connected to a buoy line and requirements to add more weak links that allow a whale to break vertical lines and hopefully shed lines and pots.

NOAA’s plan also proposes a more rigorous gear-marking system it hopes will make it possible to identify the fishery management area for fishing line found on entangled whales. That would allow for more precise targeting of problem areas.

New closures include an area south of Nantucket where right whales are congregating year-round but had been subject only to voluntary speed reductions.

NOAA will be holding public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement for the new whale plan, and public comments will be taken until March 1, with an eye toward having new regulations in place for the beginning of the new fishing year on May 1.

A new plan released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for a 60% reduction in North Atlantic right whale deaths. The plan comes as the right whale population continues to decline in number.

The North Atlantic population size has been lower, with an estimated 270 individuals in 1990. The population rebounded to 481 by 2011.

Since then, however, the species has been in decline. Recently, as right whales have migrated into new territory in Canada in search of food, the number of dead right whales caught in fishing gear or hit by vessels has shot up. Particularly hard hit were females, leading some researchers to worry that the species could reach functional extinction — too few females to rebuild the species — within a decade or two.

Scientists have determined that less than one right whale per year, on average, can die of human-induced causes. But that number has been exceeded every year, particularly since 2017 when 17 right whales died, including 12 in Canada and five in the U.S.

NOAA reported that there were only 22 calves born from 2017 to November 2020, with 31 mortalities over that same period. An additional 13 right whales are considered to have life-threatening injuries. Ship strikes were once the leading cause of right whale death, but that has changed, with entanglements causing 85% of mortalities between 2010 and 2015.

The NOAA plan resembles one that was passed by an advisory group, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, over a year ago that also sought a 60% reduction in mortalities, including a 50% cut in the number of vertical lines in Maine and a 30% cut in Massachusetts, the two leading states in landings and effort for the lobster fishery. Maine subsequently withdrew from that multi-state agreement, and NOAA then took over the plan.

Environmental groups, scientists and animal rights activists worried that NOAA was going too slow as right whales continued to die and inch closer to extinction. Many also saw the measure as just an intermediate step bridging to the development of affordable and effective technology that would remove much of the vertical lines that ensnare whales by having gear buoys resting on the bottom until summoned by a signal from the fishing boat on the surface.

“After such an unprecedented delay, this new rule will help stem the surge of right whale deaths we’ve seen over the last several years,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Ropeless fishing is the only solution that protects whales and fishermen, and the rule expands that practice. However, NOAA must end its reliance on weak rope as a solution and get emergency protections on the water immediately while this rule is finalized.”

Sharon Young, the field director for marine wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, worried that the fishing industry and others might think this was the solution.

“It’s a step in the right direction, however, there will still be a lot of risk-prone lines in the water that will entangle whales, and what we need to work towards is line-free fishing,” Young said.  “By no means does this fix the problem of fatal entanglements in a declining species.”

A New Population of Blue Whales Was Discovered Hiding in the Indian Ocean

The whales in the group seem to sing a unique song.

Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard.
Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard.Credit…Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman
Katherine J. Wu

By Katherine J. Wu

  • Dec. 23, 2020

Weighing up to 380,000 pounds and stretching some 100 feet long, the blue whale — the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth — might at first seem difficult for human eyes and ears to miss.

But a previously unknown population of the leviathans has long been lurking in the Indian Ocean, leaving scientists none the wiser, new research suggests.

The covert cadre of whales, described in a paper published last week in the journal Endangered Species Research, has its own signature anthem: a slow, bellowing ballad that’s distinct from any other whale song ever described. It joins only a dozen or so other blue whale songs that have been documented, each the calling card of a unique population.

“It’s like hearing different songs within a genre — Stevie Ray Vaughan versus B. B. King,” said Salvatore Cerchio, a marine mammal biologist at the African Aquatic Conservation Fund in Massachusetts and the study’s lead author. “It’s all blues, but you know the different styles.”

The find is “a great reminder that our oceans are still this very unexplored place,” said Asha de Vos, a marine biologist who has studied blue whales in the Indian Ocean but was not involved in the new study.

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Dr. Cerchio and his colleagues first tuned into the whales’ newfound song while in scientific pursuit of a pod of Omura’s whales off the coast of Madagascar several years ago. After hearing the rumblings of blue whales via a recorder planted on the coastal shelf, the researchers decided to drop their instruments into deeper water in the hopes of eavesdropping further.CLIMATE FWD:: Our latest insights about climate change, with answers to your questions and tips on how to help.Sign Up

“If you put a hydrophone somewhere no one has put a hydrophone before, you’re going to discover something,” Dr. Cerchio said.

A unique blue whale song

The song of the northwest Indian Ocean blue whale population, sped up 20 times to be more audible to human ears.Listen

A number of blue whale populations, each with its own characteristic croon, have long been known to visit this pocket of the Indian Ocean, Dr. Cerchio said. But one of the songs that crackled through the team’s Madagascar recordings was unlike any the researchers had heard.

By 2018, the team had picked up on several more instances of the new whales’ now-recognizable refrain. Partnerships with other researchers soon revealed that the distinctive calls had been detected at another recording outpost off the coast of Oman, in the Arabian Sea, where the sounds seem particularly prevalent. Another windfall came later that year when Dr. Cerchio learned that colleagues in Australia had heard the whales crooning the same song in the central Indian Ocean, near the Chagos Archipelago.

Data amassed from the three sites, each separated from the others by hundreds or thousands of miles, painted a rough portrait of a pod of whales moseying about in the Indian Ocean’s northwest and perhaps beyond.

Using acoustic data to pin down a new population is, by nature, indirect, like dusting for fingerprints at the scene of a crime. But Alex Carbaugh-Rutland, who studies blue whales at Texas A&M University and was not involved in the study, said the results “were very sound, no pun intended.”

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Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely related species.
Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely related species.Credit…Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman

The researchers ruled out the possibility that the songs could be attributed to other species of whales. And side-by-side comparisons of the new blue whale tune with others showed convincingly that the northwestern Indian Ocean variety was distinct, Mr. Carbaugh-Rutland said. “I think it’s really compelling evidence,” he said, drawing a comparison to linguistic dialects.

Genetic samples would help clinch the case, he added. But blue whales, which spend most of their time far from shore, are difficult to study. Whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries also culled hundreds of thousands from their ranks; an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales are thought to remain.

Not much is known about blue whale songs, although most researchers think that they help males woo their mates, as is the case with closely-related species. That can make any modifications to a cetacean melody fairly high stakes, Dr. de Vos said: “If two populations can’t talk to each other, over time, they’re going to grow apart.”

Eventually, populations with different takes on a tune might splinter into subspecies, with their own behaviors and quirks. There’s not yet evidence to show that has happened with these blue whales, nor much information on what might have driven them apart from their southerly kin. But even if the whales in this new group don’t yet formally occupy a new branch on the tree of life, they are worth getting to know.

“What things like this show us is that there are different populations, with different adaptations, with potentially different needs,” Dr. de Vos said. To conserve the world’s blue whales, she said, “there’s not one single protection measure that’s going to work.”

Two North Atlantic right whale newborns have been spotted off the US coast

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

Updated 2:27 AM ET, Sun December 13, 2020Pictured here is 16 year-old Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.Pictured here is 16 year-old Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.

(CNN)The year is ending on a positive note for North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species, with the spotting of two newborn calves.The right whale is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and there are fewer than 400 of them left in the world, Jessica Powell, a marine mammal biologist for NOAA Fisheries, told CNN.One of the babies, spotted on December 4 off the coast of Cumberland Island, Georgia, was born to Chiminea, who is believed to be 13 years old and is a first time mom. The second calf, found off Vilano Beach in Florida three days later, was born to 16-year-old Millipede.The right whale’s calving season begins in mid-November and runs through mid-April.Content by TUMS®These Firefighters Know HeatWhen hungry heroes get heartburn, TUMS® is here to save the day.”With a population at such low levels, every individual counts, and it is great to see these two new calves at essentially the beginning of the calving season,” Jamison Smith, the executive director of the Blue World Research Institute (BWRI) who captured photos of the babies using drones, told CNN.”It gives us hope that there will be more over the next few months. This species needs all the help they can get so that we might be able to show our grandkids a right whale in the future rather than just tell stories about them.”Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.Millipede and her newborn baby. Images taken under NOAA Research Permit 20556-01.The leading cause for whales’ deaths and injuries involve human interaction, including vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, Powell said. It is illegal for anyone, including boats, drones, surfers, and swimmers, to approach whales within 500 yards without a research permit.close dialog

The day’s biggest stories in 10 minutes or less.Sign up and get access to videos and weekly student quizzes.Sign Me UpNo ThanksBy subscribing you agree to ourprivacy policy.“It’s a species that is struggling and it’s essentially all hands on deck to try and save these whales,” Powell said. “We advise folks anywhere in the southeast to be really cautious when on the water during the calving season, to look out for calves, slow down around them, and give them space. Whatever we can do to give these whales a fighting chance.”This species of whale has also been experiencing an unusual mortality event (UME) over the past three years, according to NOAA. Since 2017, at least 32 dead and 13 seriously injured whales have been documented by the organization.In November, biologists mourned the loss of a North Atlantic right whale calf who was discovered dead on the shore of a barrier island off North Carolina. Preliminary reports indicated that the animal died during birth or shortly after, according to Powell, but scientists are waiting for pathology results to confirm the cause of death.