The Fall and Rise of the Right Whale

North Atlantic right whales, which can grow up to 55 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons, were the "right" whales for 18th- and 19th-century whalers because they are rich in oil and baleen, move slowly, keep close to shore and float when they die. They were long ago hunted to extinction in European waters, and by 1900 perhaps only 100 or so remained in their North American range, from feeding grounds off Maritime Canada and New England to winter calving grounds off the Southeastern coast.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - The biologists had been in the plane for hours, flying back and forth over the calm ocean. They had seen dolphins, leatherback turtles, a flock of water birds called gannets and even a basking shark - but not what they were looking for.

Then Millie Brower, who was peering with intense concentration through a bubblelike window fitted into the plane's fuselage, announced "nine o'clock, about a mile off." The plane made a stomach-churning lurch as the pilots banked left and began to circle. And there, below, were a right whale mother and her new calf, barely breaking the surface, lolling in the swells.


The researchers, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Georgia Wildlife Trust, are part of an intense effort to monitor North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered, and closely watched, species on earth. As a database check eventually disclosed, the whale was Diablo, who was born in these waters eight years ago. Her calf - at a guess 2 weeks old and a bouncing 12 feet and 2 tons - was the 38th born this year, a record that would be surpassed just weeks later, with a report from NOAA on the birth of a 39th calf. The previous record was 31, set in 2001.

"It’s a bumper year for calves," Richard Merrick, an oceanographer for NOAA's fisheries service, said in an interview. "That’s a good sign."

Actually, it's one of so many good signs that researchers are beginning to hope that for the first time in centuries things are looking up for the right whale. They say the species offers proof that simple conservation steps can have a big impact, even for species driven to the edge of oblivion.

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