Right Whale

"Hard Loss For Right Whales"

By Chris Slay


Two weeks ago yesterday I witnessed one of the most bizarre sights I've seen in the 15 years of working around right whales. As you know if you're on the water enough, with bizarre sights you'll be presented. A right whale in and of itself would almost qualify, strange beast, but even lacking animals, the landscape of the sea produces chimeric days of unearthly places in fog of all shades and those grey evenings when the sea is mirror calm, an ocean of mercury, reflecting a near identical sky, undulating purplish hues across the expanse of water to no clear conjoining of air and water, and with no horizon the mariner floats as if with nothing above or below. Then a whale surfaces and it's exhalation carries a mile to the witness who turns, perceiving a short note of inhalation but seeing nothing but water, or is it sky? The sea can be otherworldly without oddities like landbirds taking up aboard boats, hundreds of miles from their proper neighborhoods or a dozen sei whales surfacing together in a perfect concert of geysers. And it would be no good for me to catalogue the truly weird things seen in this line of work now, because such a digression could go for pages, and several of you have e-mailed and asked that I describe the aforementioned event of two weeks ago and it's already taken this long to respond.

Not that it would be an unworthy task to pool our most curious experiences and I'm guessing that more than a few would involve whales come ashore. Michael Moore, Sue Barco, Bill McClellan, et al, lived through a completely surreal experience while directing behemoth diesel monsters, yellow, bellowing and belching smoke along a barren dunescape, struggling to pull a great whale from her natural world and into ours, only to pick her massive, rancid corpse apart to illustrate the unnatural violence these last few right whales are subject to. Perhaps when that hardy company has recovered we'll hear more of the experience. Not a week before this largest of North Atlantic right whales had been retrieved from the sea, what was surely the smallest among this current population found itself on land, fully alive but no more intending to be there than did its distant dead cousin, soon to be found floating 500 miles up the coast.

On 3 February, a Tuesday morning about 0700, a retired fellow was out for his morning walk along the beach of Amelia Island, FL, at the apex of the Georgia Bight, the westernmost stretch of beach in this part of the North Atlantic and the heart of the right whale calving ground. That morning would have been the first in days that was welcoming to the walker. Days before the wind along this coast had been light to nothing during the last hours of 30 January, a lull which allows all manner of ocean animals to snuggle up to shore in shallow water, as local commercial fishermen will attest. The water depth off Amelia reaches only 5 fathom, 4 nautical miles off the beach. I've worked (photo/biopsy) mother and calves in this area, the cow lolling at the surface in no more than 8 meters of water, not much more than half her body length, each of her gentle movements creating a plume of silt in the water. From the air I've seen right whale cows appear to have their chin anchored to the bottom on these shallow flats, flukes laying at the surface, their calf nursing away. I presume these shallow waters work to some advantage for them in birthing-no real predators, easy to keep up with a newborn, keep it at the surface and along side-any number of factors that can be but guessed at.

So following this lull the wind began to come around to the north on 31 January and was blowing 10-15 knots by daybreak. It slowly and steadily increased throughout the day and held NE. Even without a terribly strong blow, the driven water is attenuated by the shape of the coastline and seas here tend to exaggerate themselves when the wind's NE. So the seas come marching onto the shelf in turns building and breaking and building but the waves' understructures have nowhere to go in the shallow water, further intensifying the violence above and below the surface. In simple terms, the travel speed of a moving wave decreases as the water depth decreases, yet the speed of the orbital motion within each wave increases. When the wind blows NE 15-20 knots along this coast the inshore waters become a washing machine. More than 20 knots and it's gnarly indeed.

For three days, 31 Jan - 2 Feb, the wind swung between 030 degrees and 080 degrees at Amelia Island. While records from the nearest weather stations half a degree to the north and south don't show velocities matching what we saw here, two ship captains provided me with data from their logs and the winds were blowing on the 1st of February. One of the vessels, a 110 meter dredge-ship, came to shelter that night in Cumberland Sound, at the north end of Amelia Island. Their wind gauge had been registering 20-30 knots all day, at times indicating a steady 30 knots. That Sunday from my beach-shack field-station I watched the hulking breakers, leaden in color and weight, running hard ashore, raring in great heaps, incessantly bringing the force of tons upon the beach. The earth itself seemed not impressed but this bi-ped stood in awe and remembered this violence two days later when this same body of water, at this place, seemed like nothing so much as a quiet pond.

The wind had slackened Monday afternoon and settled to near nothing that night. Tuesday, the 3rd, we find the beachcomber strolling at dawn along the shores of an affluent seaside community, not mile from the tall towers of the Ritz-Carlton where the jetset garrison themselves for relaxation and entertainment. The ocean is calm and small waves lazily break in the half light before sunrise. From considerable distance he sees a coal black figure rolling side to side in the surf, a figure much larger than himself but not much larger than the manatees he's seen in nearby inland waters. This first witness said that the whale was struggling in less than kneedeep water, which was already beginning to retreat. I imagine it panting and testing its muscles in the first light of day.

Perhaps an hour or more had passed before word got around to all the Federal and State agency reps that take such reports and respond to such phenomenon. Most were at the right whale Take Reduction Team meetings up north and so it fell to Monica Zani, head of the New England Aquarium's aerial survey program, to coordinate things at the beach. She arrived at approximately 0830 and I arrived shortly thereafter to find her with a cell phone in each hand and a gathering of well-meaning locals circled around her and another circled around the little right whale a few meters away. Neither object of attention looked particularly pleased with the situation. I helped Monica juggle cell phones and console the locals and vector in veterinarians and animal care experts from Orlando, Gainesville, Brunswick and Charleston. Jenny Litz (NOAA) assisted from Miami. Two FL Fish & Wildlife Law Enforcement fellows had been on the beach for some time, handling the crowd, and they remained all day. Like everyone who was drawn into this sad circus, they were extremely helpful and offered anything in their power to give.

The calf lay there breathing laboriously, but not struggling for breath. The tide had now left it 50 meters from the water's edge. The color of a newborn right whale is as black as the inside of a shark's mouth is white. It's pure and this little animal was beautiful. It seemed to need nothing more than to be back in the water and with the animal from which it had emerged only days before, perhaps better measured in hours. Fetal folds were deeply creased in both of its sides. I've seen other right whale calves in the calving ground, alongside their moms or dead and floating, that had such folds present. But I remember none so defined save for a couple of neonates which necropsies suggested died at birth. In live calves, fetal folds sometimes show slightly on one side while not at all on the other. It seems to me these folds may remain with a young whale for days, perhaps more than a week, maybe two? But the folds and the skin of this calf suggested to me that it had been born within a couple days of stranding. The skin was absolutely pristine, no scratches. Even young calves in the calving ground will carry some light scratches, I suppose from contact with the callosities of their moms.

I stepped alongside the calf and paced its length at approximately 4.5 meters and eyeballed its mass to be about 900 kilos. The necropsy report should clarify these estimates. I collected a small skin sample and fecal samples (perhaps only meconium). We set up a video camera to record the respiration of the calf and the locals worked in unison with the spirit of a matriarchal old nanny at a birth. They brought sheets and buckets and one concerned couple produced a nice beach umbrella. A manager from the Ritz Carlton arrived on a beach going golf cart and offered up two more large umbrellas and had a table set on the beach with coffee and water for the effort. The whale was draped in cloth and kept wet by a bucket brigade steadily marching back and forth to the water's edge. Umbrellas were augered into place to shade the calf although skies were mercifully overcast. The water temp was approximately 12 and the air temp that day ranged from 12 - 14. While I'm no veterinarian, these conditions seem about as good as could be asked for under the circumstances.

Zani and Alicia Windham-Reid (FL FWC) coordinated aerial survey efforts in an attempt to locate a lone whale in the area that might prove to be this little one's mother. Jamie Smith (FL FWC) and others at the TRT meetings were working to secure airlift capabilities in the event such an animal was found. It is my understanding that the US Coast Guard offered a positive response to this request. Bob Murphy, of Environmental Aviation, took it upon himself to get airborne as soon as he heard about the calf and he was the first in the air. He could find no right whales in the vicinity, despite an intense search over glass-smooth water. Zani and Windham-Reid's teams managed to search a much larger area, approximately 25NM north and south and about 15NM offshore. Both teams would find whales later in the day but none nearby and none conclusively identified as females.

I had been in contact with Teri Rowles (NOAA), who was racing down from Charleston. From her cell phone, she was providing much needed encouragement and coordinating the arrival of Mike Walsh from Sea World and Bob Bonde from USGS. Bonde has necropsied more right whale calves than anyone in North America. But who among us has dealt with a living right whale on the beach? It's hard to voice the emotions, collective and palpable, that hung about this scene that morning while we were waiting on the vets. Everyone wanted to do something but without the usual imperative at a live stranding-get the animal back into the water-it was a frustrating morning. The little whale lay there, steadily breathing, with the patience of one with no choice. So it seemed.

Around noon the GA-DNR (Dept of Natural Resources) arrived, amongst them their veterinarian Terry Norton, as well as, the head of that state's protected species program, Mike Harris. Mike has been involved in many right calf necropsies himself and many live strandings of odontocetes, so he was appreciative of just how bizarre this situation was. We stood sided by side, surveying the strange scene, two Georgia crackers-you'd half expect one of us to spit a stream of tobacco into the sand. Damn. With Mike and his gang's help, we set about digging larger excavations around the flippers of the whale. Not long thereafter, Rowles and Bonde and Walsh converged at the site, a sure relief for those of us less knowledgeable in the care of large animals under stress.

From early in the day there had been couple of guys from the county's road crew on site with a large front-end loader. Butch Hartman, head of that department for Nassau County, FL, stayed on the beach all day and made it clear that anything that could be done with his equipment, would be done. Walsh, et al, directed the loader crew to cut a trench seaward to drain the putrid water that had collected around the calf and fresh water was bucketed in. The loader crew also started berming against the tide that would eventually come. Blood was drawn from a vein in the flukes and six large syringes of steroids were administered. Very warm water was hauled in from the Ritz in barrels and sprayed on the whale. I'll not go into details regarding these things as it if for the experts to describe. I'm sure NOAA will offer a necropsy report to those interested at the proper time. At any rate, Sea World's large stretcher was readied and with much rocking and pulling it was gotten under the whale and the whale was made ready for transport.

In hindsight, I wish I'd have had the presence of mind to direct the operator of the front-end loader to excavate a trench as soon as I arrived that morning. With two or three passes of his enormous bucket a trench 1.5 meters deep, 2.5 meters wide and 5 meters long could have been created just seaward of the whale. Water would have seeped in. Additional water could have been bucketed in with the machine. Perhaps we could have rolled the animal over into this temporary hold and righted it. This would have taken enormous pressure off of the whale and saved it hours of laying under the burden of its own weight. It is possible that such an effort could have been accomplished in less than 30 minutes. Live and learn.

It was about 1600 hours when whale and stretcher were sorted and the flatbed trailer was readied. It was positioned. Hartman, under Walsh's direction, prepared the front-end loader to lift the whale onto the trailer. It had been determined that a vacant pool at Marineland, two hours drive south, was the best option for this animal in the near term, although I think all present were realistic about its odds for survival. The whale was adroitly lifted and placed on the trailer. As it was being transported down the beach to an access road it died. It was now 1700 hours. The whale had been ashore for at least 10 hours. The destination of the transient little creature was immediately changed to the University of Florida's School of Veterinary Medicine and the procession headed west into the dimming of that day.

No official necropsy report has been circulated but preliminary reports indicate that the whale had no obvious congenital defects. It appears not to have nursed at all. Age was estimated at 2-4 days. Better that the vets say more about the findings. Otherwise, it seems that one likely scenario to which this loss can be attributed is a birth in violent and shallow waters. No doubt these animals are supremely suited to their environment but even a great leviathan, in who knows what throes of spasm and blood, might find herself in water too turbulent, in a current running strong along a sandbar, in some ill-fated confluence of weather and bathymetry that would not allow her calf to remain at her tending while finding its first breaths. It's no use taking this speculation too far as the conclusion is the same. But if this mortality can be attributed to Mother Nature alone, is it not a striking contrast to the death of #1004? And that was not the death of one whale but two. The largest of right whales and the smallest. One of the oldest in this population and two of the youngest. Two calves dead within days of each other, one never knowing the world of water, one knowing water and land. It's a rough world out there for these wild animals and we'll bear witness to the natural stresses they endure but it's a sorry sight to see so many of the remaining few northern right whales killed slowly by fishing gear or quickly by ships, either way, at the hands of our own commerce.

2004 Chris Slay


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