THE RIGHT WHALE PROGRAM 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 achieved. 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 depend). 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= ina 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= is 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= a 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= h 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= es 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= pend 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 flights. 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= s 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 = has 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= land 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= ts 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= y 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= e. Observation Techniques - The right whales of Pen=EDnsula Vald=E9s live in w= ater 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 whales. 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= of 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).