North Atlantic right whales: Hunted to the edge of extinction

Hunted to the edge of extinction, this mysterious creature is already one of the world's most endangered species - and now it faces a new peril. So can anything be done to save the last of the great North Atlantic right whales?
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The Independent Online

When it comes to whales, Eubalaena glacialis is not exactly the most picturesque of animals. This is no smiling, New Age dolphin nor oceanarium-busting orca named Willy, but a 50-ton, barnacled creature, crawling with whale lice, bad breath, and all the apparent grace of a water buffalo.

From its upper jaw hang strange curtains of baleen, nine-foot-long flexible filters that it uses to strain its diet of minute plankton. Made of the same material from which human fingernails are composed, these filters were also useful for making corsets and umbrellas, just as the animal's thick blubber boiled down nicely for lamp oil. This was once the most hunted whale, its common name a cruel pun bequeathed by history: it floated when dead, and was therefore the "right" whale to catch.

But now this almost grotesque animal is at the centre of efforts by a remarkable coalition of scientists and designers intent on reinventing that old Seventies slogan: Save the Whale. And this time, they mean business.

Cape Cod, on the Massachusetts coast, has long been the summer haunt of the great and the good, an idyll whose place names seem to define New England - precisely because they take their names from Old England: Truro, f Chatham, Barnstaple. But beyond the seersucker and the SUVs, another spirit is alive - at the very end of the Cape, where it curls out into the Atlantic.

Provincetown is the last stop in America. As its long-time resident, Norman Mailer, once wrote, geography runs out here. A century before Mailer, Henry David Thoreau declared, "A man may stand there and put all America behind." Yet this is where America began; it was here, rather than Plymouth Rock, that the Pilgrim Fathers made first landfall. Provincetown was also America's first artists' colony; and now, its premier gay resort. It remains a place for outsiders, artists, writers and poets - John Waters, the film director, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Michael Cunningham and Mary Oliver all live here.

But Provincetown has a darker side, for along with Nantucket, New Bedford and Mystic - names equally wreathed in New England glamour - this was once a whaling port. From here Yankee ships set out in pursuit of whales, and their oil. It was the first time America had dominated a global industry; only the discovery of another sort of oil, in Pennsylvania in 1859, would put paid to this economic miracle. In the 1840s, when Herman Melville sailed from New Bedford on a voyage that would inspire Moby-Dick, whaling was earning $120m per annum for the US economy. Indeed, one reason why Melville wrote his book was to capitalise on this American bid for empire.

But as the whalers moved from ocean to ocean in search of prey, they were exhausting the world's whaling stocks. At that point, and with fatal bad timing, Norway developed the grenade harpoon, allowing the pursuit of the faster, rorqual whales - the blue whale and the fin back, the two largest animals on Earth. Then, in the early 20th century, Japan and Russia deployed their industrial-scale whaling fleets. It is a salutary fact that whaling actually peaked in 1965 - when I was a schoolboy - with the death of 72,471 whales.

By then, the only market for whale meat was as pet food. It was this realisation - that we were feeding these magnificent animals to our cats and dogs - that acted as a brake on whaling. Yet as last month's meeting of the International Whaling Commission in St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean shows, the industry never really ended, and may start again in earnest - if Japan and its allies have their way.

The irony is that whalewatching is far more profitable than whale hunting. Provincetown is the living proof. Five times a day in high season, whalewatch boats take day-trippers out to see cetaceans (from the Greek, meaning "sea monster"). I've been going there for six years, and seen 50-ton humpbacks leap out of the water, and 80-foot fin backs dive beneath the boat to spout on the other side, the spray hitting my face like a fishy atomiser.

But one whale you will not see, unless you are very lucky, is the right whale. There are, at the latest estimates, fewer than 400 of these animals left. They have been reduced to this parlous state by the ease with which they were hunted; victims of their history, and ours. Now fiercely protected, no one may approach a right whale nearer than 500 metres. Should any boat encounter one, it must leave the scene as soon as possible.

And yet dozens of right whales die each year from ship strikes, for they have the misfortune - some might say stupidity - to choose one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in which to feed. The New York Times noted recently that these mortalities may be under-reported by as much as 80 per cent. And in a 16-month period, of eight whales known to have died from such causes, four were females bearing calves. If any animal ever needed a champion, this is it. And so it has, in the charismatic shape of Dr Charles "Stormy" Mayo.

As we enter his office, Dr Mayo is playing a computer game called The Bricks of Egypt, deftly demolishing a CGI pyramid. "I'm a serious scientist, you know," he quips, as he blasts another pixelated brick before turning to talk. Stormy was the first person licensed by the US Government to release entangled whales, and his necessary passion - because they need him - is the right whale. To save just one female could make a difference between extinction or survival. The odds are fit for a movie pitch: one man to save 400 whales. And it is hard not to see Stormy as a hero, a man who may be flown at short notice to South Carolina to rescue whales in operations that cost thousands of dollars.

A charismatic man with pale blue eyes and a wiry frame, Stormy's family are Cape Cod originals, dating back to 1650; his own grandfather once hunted whales here. But 30 years ago, Stormy helped found the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Since then he has devoted himself to the study of right whales, and the threats that they face.

It is another of the many paradoxes in the story of the whale that they are rescued in the same way they were once hunted. Summoned by the report of an entangled whale, Stormy and a colleague set out in a rigid inflatable boat to find the animal, slowing its inevitable escape using buoys (native Americans used the same technique, only with inflated sealskins). Then, wearing an ice hockey helmet and looking like a post-modern knight of the sea, Stormy attempts to cut the animal free. His instruments resemble the whaling lances of his forebears - only with sharpened hooks to slice through the fishing lines that threaten to starve or even drown the whales. It is a highly risky procedure. These are not f bovine creatures grazing on the oceanic equivalent of verdant pastures, but surprisingly flexible animals, almost able to touch their snouts with their tails - a manoeuvrability that allows them to turn in tight circles when pursuing their prey.

Stormy shows us video clips of disentanglement scenes. The sheer muscular power of the right whale is vividly apparent. Twisting and turning like some vast ebony salmon, the whale's tail, still bloody where the ropes bound it, thrashes in a manner that brings to life 19th-century engravings of overturned whaleboats. With one flick of the tail, this creature could indeed send a boat flying into the air.

After a rescue, Stormy cannot remember what he has done. He reckons that his short-term memory saves only those details essential for the task in hand. Only when he watches the video - recorded from a camera fixed to his helmet - does he relive the moment. On one occasion a hook on the line attached to the whale snagged on his lifejacket as the animal dove beneath the waves. He had only fractions of a second to cut himself free; once in the water, his arms would have been dragged back as the whale pulled him down into the depths.

He might not approve of the anthropomorphism, but Stormy's relationship with Eubalaena glacialis is intimate. He speaks of their prehistoric presence, their baleen glinting in the sun like an extraordinary living musical instrument. And while he finds the word "intelligent" less than useful when applied to animals, he does call them "wicked", wilful creatures who know their power. Faced with attack by orcas, for instance, they will form a cetacean version of a camp of wagons drawn into a circle: heads in, tails out. The orcas, knowing the fatal power of those flukes, find that discretion is the better part of valour.

Stormy's colleague, Scott Landry, who often accompanies him on these missions, has a wry humour and is given to saying, "Ye gods." On his own screen, Scott has close-ups of whales so deeply entangled that the blubber has begun to grow over the line. Weeping and bleeding, these areas are colonised by parasites, a sure sign of an ailing animal.

It is upsetting to see them photographed in their slow decline, their sleek black bodies turning grey, their health compromised by the cords that bind them, accidental catches as byproducts of global industry rather than subjects of it. They must have sinned mightily to be so ill rewarded. Perhaps they are paying the price for their Edenic self-exile, for forsaking the land for the sea.

In the late winter and early spring, the Center's research vessel, the Shearwater, sails out to measure the zooplankton in the bay. These levels are accurate indicators of whether this habitat can support the whales. If the count rises above the magical figure of 3,750 organisms per m 3 - the density of these colourless little aliens - then the bay will sustain the population. From such minute and methodical study, leviathans follow.

Meanwhile, I have embarked on my own project. Fascinated by whales since I was a boy, and encouraged by the film director and Provincetown resident John Waters (who accused me of being a "whale-stalker", and, when I showed him my latest snaps, of circulating "whale porn"), I have decided to write a book on the subject. At the same time, BBC's Arena - in the persons of director Adam Low and cameraman Martin Rosenbaum - are filming my whalish obsession.

So it is that, zipped into a survival suit, I climb to the top deck of the Shearwater. It's early May, and until now the plankton counts have remained obstinately low. It is a perpetual anxiety - will these rare whales return to feed and take up residence in the bay?

Steered by Marc, its captain, the Shearwater makes for the western side of the bay. Crew members Meri, Denise and I scan the horizon through field glasses till our eyes ache. Lulled by the unchanging sea, I feel myself slipping into a trance. "There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves," as Ishmael says in Moby-Dick, as he watches for whales from the mast-head, "everything resolves you into languor". f

Suddenly, Denise spots something. It seems inconsequential, a low black shape sliding over the sea's surface; but as she shouts down to Stormy and David, his assistant, I realise we have our first right whale of the day. Slowly but surely the animal moves like a lawnmower over the waves. Through my glasses, I can see the strange bonnet at the top of its head, covered in pale beige callosities like lichen on a gnarled tree. In fact, from what little you see as they float in the water, they look more like plants than animals. Only close up do you register the broad tail behind, powering the animal's bulk which lies iceberg-like below.

As the Shearwater closes the distance between us, I put down my field glasses and stare in amazement. One, two, three, four, five animals now appear around us, all ploughing the water, the sun on their baleen, revealing the bizarre beauty of the animal's complicated structure.

Then one animal approaches the boat, so close that Stormy, who is on the bowsprit, could almost reach out and touch its rough head. It is as if the whale were paying obeisance to its champion, nodding its head serenely towards Stormy as it passes. It then swings around the boat, and next to me.

Looking down into the water, I could see its great white jaw hanging open, wide enough to drive a small car through. It is a uniquely thrilling, almost fearful moment. Now I could see the whole of the animal suspended in its element - creating a rippling wake in front of its rostrum, the weight of 50 tons behind it, silently gaping, stranger than anything I had ever seen. It also smelled - somewhere between a cow's fart and a fish market. It was like watching a dinosaur; a spectacle of fantastical, yet oddly intimate rarity.

Half a mile away, shipping was moving in and out of the bay. It was an object lesson in the right whale's plight. These animals pay little heed to anything other than zooplankton. They would not know, or see, the tanker or the container ship steaming towards them. Back in Provincetown, the Shearwater alerted shipping to the presence of the animals. That one day's trip may have saved another whale.

Just as the boat turns to leave, a black shape breaks the water's distance. A whale was breaching, throwing itself into the air, then falling back with a distant crash. Seconds later, its tail appears perpendicular to the sea, riding high and emblematic against the sky, beating down again and again, suffused with its sheer physical presence. And with this demonstration, we turn our backs on the whales, leaving them to their lunch.

In the wake of last month's acrimonious IWC meeting in the Caribbean, the new battle to save the whale is set to become far fiercer than any fought in the Seventies. It also creates strange bedfellows; as odd as Ishmael sharing his room at the Spouter Inn with the tattooed savage, Queequeg. Yet in his own way, the designer Alex Carleton is the Stormy Mayo of fashion.

Carleton also grew up in New England, fascinated by its history and heritage, especially of the sea. At college, he would clomp around campus in a pea coat, itchy wool sweater and black boots, chocolate bars and cigarettes stashed in his pockets. For a while, he worked in mainstream fashion, for Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch, but the call of the wild proved too great, and in 2002, he left Manhattan for Maine.

There he set up Rogues Gallery, hand-printing recycled and over-dyed T-shirts, often with maritime emblems: 19th century schooners, bare-breasted mermaids; my favourite merely announces Leviathan in gothic script bleached into charcoal. Their beauty lay in their uniqueness: the ink in the screen "discharging" to create odd effects. Rogues Gallery products now sell in New York, Paris, London, Stockholm and Tokyo. But staying true to their first outlet - Map in Provincetown - the company has embarked on its own mission to save the whale.

Under the banner, "Stewards of the North Atlantic", Carleton and his team have designed three T-shirts, all profits from which will go to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), and which are exclusively offered here to Independent readers. With characteristic wit, they have turned that Seventies slogan into a mordant gothic Save the Whale on one shirt. Another has an exquisite antique engraving of a right whale; the third, a modern print of the Shearwater. "We're covering all the bases," quips Alex, "from art-fags to dudes." They're launching the collection with an installation in New York's Meatpacking district next week. High fashion and environmental kudos: what more could you want?

A few more right whales, I imagine. Back in Provincetown, the whales returned this spring, some close enough to shore to thrill dog-walkers. Joined by their cetacean cousins - the humpbacks and the fin backs - the ocean comes alive with endangered animals. It is difficult to imagine that life on such a scale could be so close to extinction. But with the help of a scientist in an ice-hockey mask and a talented New England designer, the whales of Provincetown might just stand a chance.