Subject: Right Whale:Southern Right Whale/WCI Program

Michael Williamson (
Thu, 6 Feb 1997 10:56:21 -0500 (EST)


Roger Payne and Victoria Rowntree
Whale Conservation Institute

Why Whales and Why Research

Two major misconceptions threaten whales: 1) whales have been saved; 2) any
call for more research just postpones action, we already know enough to
ensure the survival of whales.

In reality; whales currently face the gravest threats of their history, and
because every new generation of humans creates new threats to the survival
of every endangered species there is no such thing as a large mammal
species whose future has been ensured.

To be more specific: 1) it is because we have a moratorium on whaling that
most people seem to believe that whales have been saved.  But this is a
fatal misconception.  It seems inevitable that whaling will resume shortly,
and given the recent revelations about the many forms of cheating that have
occurred in Norway, Japan, and the former Soviet Union, it is clear that
whalers cannot be trusted, and that the controlled whaling towards which
the whaling nations are working is an unrealistic dream that cannot be

In any case whaling is just a minor nuisance compared to the real threats
that whales face.  For years intentional killing was what threatened whales
most.  No longer today it is accidental death resulting from entanglement
in fishing gear and collisions with ships that appears to kill most whales.
But there is another cause of death against which even these may pale to
insignificance: the gradual accumulation of toxic substances in the bodies
of whales.  This slow graying of life is one of the most serious problems
confronting humanity as well.  However, it seems equally clear that before
action serious enough to change things significantly can take place we will
need a much better understanding of the degree to which toxic pollutants
are affecting ocean life (particularly the fisheries on which humans

2)  As regards the need for more research: in the fight between despoilers
and conservationists the despoilers hold almost all the cards since in
order to prevent the destruction of a species conservationists must win
every battle from now through all eternity, whereas all the despoilers need
do is win once and the species will be lost forever.  The only hope
conservationists have of postponing that inevitability is to know more than
the despoilers know.  And the only way to achieve that is to keep doing
research from now through all eternity.  Without research on the
concentrations of fat soluble toxins in the tissues of marine mammals who
would have guessed that the greatest threat to whales is probably from that
cause?  Truth is the slender thread on which the lives of whales and other
large mammals are suspended, and truth can only be discovered through
research.  Fortunately, truth is a force that cannot be ignored forever,
and for these reasons a main emphasis of the Whale Conservation Institute
has been, and will continue to be, research.

Another reason for focusing on the threats whales face is that whales are
perhaps the most effective of "lever species" having the power to awaken in
humans the strongest interest in the wild world, and to spur us to action
to start solving not just the problems we have created for whales, but for
the whole environment and for ourselves.

The Current Situation

Right whales are the most endangered of the large whales.  Centuries of
hunting have destroyed 95% of their original population estimated at
80,000.  Our study of right whales spans 27 years, making it the longest
continuous record of any large whale based on individuals recognizable from
natural markings.  We currently know more than 1300 individual right
whales.  Repeat sightings of the same individuals have shown many things
about the most basic aspects of the lives of right whales, including the
way they respond to long term changes in their environment.  The technique
of studying known individuals is proving to be an powerful tool for
monitoring the health of this population of right whales, one of the two
largest left on earth.

Whales roam vast reaches of the world's oceans.  Their bodies have become
repositories for fat-soluble toxins that threaten their lives.  They are
also covered with scars and other indicators of the problems they encounter
at sea.  In an important sense, whales are like the canaries miners once
used to detect threats from poisonous substances they could not sense
themselves.  In places where whales are stressed, life around them appears
to be stressed.  Where they are healthy, life in the surrounding oceans
appears to prosper.  Join us in our fight to preserve the peace and mystery
of the oceans for future generations by supporting the Right Whale Program
of the Whale conservation Institute.

 The Right Whale Program

Right whales are the most endangered of the large whales and are on the
brink of extinction in the oceans of the northern hemisphere.  Humans have
yet to cause the extinction of a species with a worldwide distribution, but
the closest we have ever come is with the right whale. Being easy to
harvest and rich in whale bone and oil, it was the first whale to be
commercially hunted, beginning in the 1100s, its name even refers to the
fact that it was the "right" whale species to kill.

In 1970, the Whale Conservation Institute (WCI) began a study of right
whales that use the shallow, protected bays of Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s, Argent=
as a nursery and calving ground.  It is a place where mother right whales
come during the first three months of their calf's life.  At the beginning
of the study, WCI's president, Dr. Roger Payne, discovered that individual
right whales could be distinguished by the pattern of white markings
(callosities) on their heads.  Since then we have made annual aerial
surveys of the population by photographing each whale encountered along the
500 km perimeter of the Peninsula.

Our data base now spans over a quarter of a century and is the longest
continuous record of any baleen whale species based on individuals that can
be recognized in the wild from natural markings.  It has provided us with
rich insights into the whales' lives and is proving to be an invaluable
tool for monitoring the health of the population as human activities
encroach inexorably into the whales' habitat.  By following the lives of
over 1300 known individuals, we have seen where the whales concentrate,
with whom they consort, and the hazards they face.  We have seen newborn
calves grow to adulthood and return to the Peninsula with calves of their
own.  At times our research is full of fun - like watching mothers playing
with their calves.  At other times it is painful - like following a mother
and calf pair for over an hour as they desperately flee the repeated
attacks of gulls that are trying to feed on the live skin and blubber they
peck and pry from the whales' backs whenever the whales surface to breathe.

Much of what we have learned about the right whales at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s=
applicable to all right whales.   Many species of whales are now studied
with techniques that we pioneered including: the use of natural markings to
identify individual whales; the use of surveyor's equipment to track a
whale's movements precisely; growth rates, and the estimation of age
through measurements of the length of free-ranging whales.

Right whales are different from other baleen whale species in that in the
southern hemisphere they live very close to shore during the calving
season.  At Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s two hundred foot cliffs rising from the se=
provide a remarkable view of the whales as they pass below us.  We often
look right down into their blowholes (Figure 1).  With a spotting scope, we
can follow individuals for hours at a time.  Other species of whales do not
provide such a rich opportunity because they do not live as close to shore,
nor spend as much time at the surface.  The close-up views one gets from
boats do not provide as broad a picture and they give problematical results
since the presence of the boat and the disturbance it makes is likely to
influence the normal behavior of the whales.  The right whales that visit
Argentina offer a rare opportunity to study whale behavior without
disturbing the whales and therefore to understand the social systems of
large whales.  Although the greeting ceremonies of dogs are familiar to all
of us, we do not know even such simple things as what ritual whales go
through when they greet one another.  A future goal of the Right Whale
Research Program is to understand what is communicated when whales interact
and the effect of a whale's age, sex, reproductive state and relatedness on
its behavior.

Right whales are no longer hunted, but human activities threaten their
future.  Growing human populations are impinging on right whale habitat
throughout the world and the whales are suffering.  In recent years, the
number of kelp gulls at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s has tripled in response to ric=
food sources available to them at dumps and in the effluent of fish
processing plants.  The right whales at the Pen=EDnsula are currently being
severely harassed by gulls that feed on skin they gouge from the whales'
backs.  The intensity of the harassment is shown by the large proportion of
whales with gull generated lesions on their backs (Figure 2).  In 1995,
mother-calf pairs spent 20% of their time fleeing the attacks of gulls.
The whales are fasting while at the Pen=EDnsula and some of the energy stor=
that would normally support the growth and development of the calf are now
being used to flee gull attacks.  We fear that the gulls may be increasing
calf mortality and are likely to drive the whales from prime calving bays
into less suitable areas.  We are working with people at the Pen=EDnsula to
help remedy this problem.  In addition, hazards such as boats and fishing
gear occur throughout the whales' once pristine calving grounds.  The
whales have abandoned areas that they had inhabited continuously for at
least ten years, whales have boat-propeller scars on their backs, and
several trail ropes souvenirs of entanglements in fishing gear.  In 1994 we
worked with a local conservation organization, Fundacion Patagonia Natural,
to establish a stranding network that is now keeping a careful record of
the increasing number of right whales that strand at the Pen=EDnsula each
year as well as collecting tissue samples for genetic studies for analysis
of the toxins that affect whales.

Right whales are at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s during the calving season.  They s=
the rest of the year feeding on dense swarms of microscopic plankton and
krill thousands of kilometers to the south of the Pen=EDnsula.  Yet even in
these remote and productive oceans, the whales are impacted by human
activities taking place thousands of miles away.  Toxic substances (largely
used in temperate climes) are transported to polar regions by global winds
where they concentrate in the prey species on the whales' feeding grounds.
Toxins have been found to impair reproduction and development in mammals.
WCI is about to launch a research expedition (the Global Ecotox Program)
that will assess the variation and extent of pollution in the world's
oceans.  The program will provide globally integrated data that will allow
a consistent appraisal of exposure and risk from toxins throughout the
world's oceans.  Assessing right whale populations, including the one at
Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s, is an important part of that program.

Future Plans

Photographic Surveys - The first priority for each year's research is to
continue monitoring the population of right whales at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s
through photographic surveys of the whales present on the calving grounds
each year.  Our surveys alert us to changes that are affecting the whales
and provide evidence on which their management can be based.  In recent
years we have only been able to afford a single survey each year.  A high
priority is to obtain funds to do several surveys each year which will give
us much more representative data.  The use of a computer program (see
below) to analyze the thousands of photographs obtained on such flights
will make it possible to keep abreast of the greater number of survey

Computer Software Identification Program - In the future we will use a
computer program to identify whales filmed in our aerial surveys.  The
program has been developed by Lex Hiby and Phil Lovell of the Sea Mammals
Research Unit, in Cambridge, England.  Hiby and Lovell's program will
improve the ease of identifying individual whales and will allow us to use
a computer to store the patterns of each of the 1300 known right whale
heads in our catalog, thus ensuring the general availability of this
catalog in the future.  This will be a great improvement over our current
copy of the catalog which exists only as a single hand-made photo album.
The program will also aide in making identifications by comparing the
patterns of newly photographed whales with whales already in the catalog
and will greatly reduce the time it takes to analyze an aerial survey, an
arduous three-month process in which it sometimes takes two hours to
identify an individual.  Getting this program completed and running is
perhaps the most important investment we can make to preserve our 27 year
history of the right whales at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s.  It will also provide
insights into the whales' long-range movements by allowing comparisons with
catalogs in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and will make our data
available to others who are studying right whales in Argentina and other
parts of the world.  Entry of head catalog photos will require some new
equipment purchases and may involve travel from England to the U.S. to get
the program up and running on our computers in the States.  Entry of the
head catalog will take several months and will begin as soon as the program
is complete (Spring of 1997).

Specimen Collection -We will collect skin samples from southern hemisphere
right whales on their feeding and calving grounds for toxin and genetic
analyses (as well as determining sex - see below).  This research will be
conducted under WCI's Global Ecotox Program.  The samples will be analyzed
for toxins by John Stegeman, and Michael Moore at the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute and will be compared with samples from northern
hemisphere right whales and from other whale species from other oceans
around the world.  The samples will be analyzed for genetic relatedness by
Catherine Schaeff at the American University and will be compared to
genetic samples from right whale populations off South Africa, Australia
and the northern hemisphere.

Student Training - Much of what we can learn about right whales in the
future requires long field seasons in which individual whales are followed
throughout the months they are at the Pen=EDnsula.  There is a strong need
for an Argentine biologist to be involved in conservation issues involving
these whales.  Towards both of these ends we plan to work closely with an
Argentine student who is undergoing graduate training in Argentina or
elsewhere while studying whales with us.

Right Whale Technical Book - By May of 1997 we will complete a semi-popular
book for the University of Chicago Press based on data from the first
twenty years of our study of Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s right whales.  The book i=
fully illustrated with graphs, photographs and interpretive line drawings.

Journal Publications - We have completed a manuscript describing the extent
of the gull harassment and its immediate effect on the whales and have
presented our findings to management authorities at the Pen=EDnsula.  The
harassment by gulls has escalated sharply during the past ten years and
offers a rare opportunity to document the effects of harassment on a
population of whales.  Upon completion of the book, the survey data will be
analyzed for longer-term effects of harassment on the whales' distribution,
birthing rate of females, and the growth of the calves..

Behavioral Studies - Over the next five years our research efforts will be
directed towards unraveling the mysteries of the right whale's social
system.  Some questions to be addressed include: looking for repeated
associations between individuals and the influence of relatedness on these
associations; determining what denotes dominance and who are the dominant
individuals; the changing sociality of mothers as their calves mature; the
changing associations between right whales as they age.

Long-range movements - Among all the right whales that have been
photographed at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s, only one whale from a calving ground =
been positively identified on a feeding ground.  That whale was initially
sighted at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s and was re-sighted off South Georgia, an is=
in the middle of the South Atlantic.  The right whales' calving grounds are
close to shore but their primary feeding grounds occur in the
seldom-traveled oceans of the southern hemisphere.  Our Global Ecotox
Program may provide us with photos of other right whales from these remote
areas.  We are developing some idea of where the whales are feeding through
work with Don Shell (University of Alaska) who is studying isotopes in the
baleen of whales that have died and stranded at the Pen=EDnsula.  His resul=
indicate that the whales are feeding south of the Antarctic Convergence.
This is a different feeding area from that of the right whales that calve
off South Africa.  One of our greatest desires for the future is to put
satellite tags on right whales so we can find out where they go when they
leave the Pen=EDnsula to feed.  Bruce Mate, a pioneer in satellite telemetr=
of whales, is very interested in collaborating on this project.  Satellite
tags are expensive and a successful satellite tracking program with
Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s right whales will require a specific funding initiativ=

Observation Techniques - The right whales of Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s live in w=
that is only about fifteen feet deep and when observed from above the
whales cannot dive deeply enough to get out of sight.  If we could afford
to observe groups of whales from the air over long periods of time it would
be possible to observe everything that they do in intimate detail something
that is not possible from underwater since diving with whales often
disturbs them.  We have plans for a system that will allow us to observe
groups of whales from directly above for long periods of time.  We suspect
this will provide a major breakthrough in understanding the lives of

Genetic Analysis - One of the most vexing problems of working with the
right whales at Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s is not knowing their sex an essential
piece of information if one is to understand behavior.  Although we can
easily identify a mature female (an adult accompanying a calf) it is not so
easy to determine the sex of a male.  We will remedy this by using recently
developed genetic techniques for analyzing tiny samples of whale skin.  The
skin samples we collect during this work will also be analyzed for toxic
burden and genetic fingerprints (as mentioned above).  As the years pass
the knowledge of the relatedness of these 1300 or more right whales at
Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s should prove to be one of the most interesting results=
our research.

Group Relatedness - One of the least-studied categories of right whales are
the sub-adults.  It seems likely that they may prove to be one of the most
rewarding groups to research.  For example, there are right whales in the
centers of both bays at Vald=E9s, many of which appear to be sub-adults.
When mothers with calves meet, they often remain quiet until the calves
start to interact, at which point one or both of the mothers break up the
play by swimming away with their calf.  This makes sense given that the
mothers have migrated for thousands of kilometers from feeding to nursery
grounds without feeding and must return all those thousands of kilometers
before they can feed significantly again.  Therefore the energy needed to
fuel the play of their calves is provided by a mother's milk during a
period in which the mother is fasting.  Sometimes mothers tolerate play
between their calves and other sub-adults.  We would like to know whether
such sub-adults are related to the calves with which they are permitted to
play for prolonged periods.  We will focus our attention on such sub-adults
whenever the opportunity arises (whenever sub-adults are close enough to
the cliffs to be seen well enough to be identified).