It was a memorable finale to a day out on the Atlantic: a four-metre whale calf gliding past the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Their incredible luck, however, would be made clear hours later, as researchers around the world clamoured for more details after seeing the 47-second video of the encounter online.
The divers had unwittingly stumbled across a North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered whales. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the recently born calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles away from the species’ usual haunts along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.
“When I realised what it was, my hair stood up on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And all of a sudden this newborn calf appears in El Hierro.”
This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years
More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any sign of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling wiped out all traces of the species from European waters.
A handful of sightings in European waters over the years had been linked to whales with a penchant for transatlantic journeys. But Aguilar was tantalised by another – albeit more unlikely – possibility. “It could suggest that the species could be starting to recolonise the north Atlantic on the European and African side.”
The sighting was a bright moment for scientists tracking a species that has long been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since 2017, records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or seriously injured – a devastating blow to a species that has dwindled to fewer than 400 members.
Most of these incidents have been linked to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales turned up snarled in fishing lines, nursing deep wounds from ship strikes or reeling from ocean noise, fear began to set in that the species would be the first great whale to become extinct in modern times.
It was an unnerving turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers – right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas and float when killed – the species was the first whale to be protected by law, in 1935.
Safeguarded from commercial whaling, their numbers began to slowly increase, galvanising hope that the risk of extinction had been staved off.
Further optimism came from another species that had forged a remarkable comeback after as much as 90% of their population was wiped out by whaling: humpback whales, whose numbers have now climbed into the tens of thousands.
“Humpback whales are one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century,” says Chris Johnson of the WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “It’s not perfect but they’ve bounced back.”
Even at its lowest point, however, the global population of humpback whales was believed to number in the thousands – far exceeding the estimated population of 356 North Atlantic right whales in 2019.
“Are North Atlantic right whales the new humpback? I would say yes,” says Johnson. “In that we can succeed at this, too. But it’s going to take all of us. There are important decisions that we need to make in the next few years if we’re going to have species like the North Atlantic right whale around.”
Central to saving these whales are the ships that ply the routes off the east coast of North America, as well as the fishers who harvest its waters, rich in lobster and snow crab. Data from US officials suggests that more than 85% of right whales, which can reach the length of a city bus and weigh as much as 70 tonnes, have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.
Mitigation measures – put forward after right whales were found ensnared in hundreds of metres of heavy ropes or dragging traps that weigh as much as 60kg – have at times sparked protests from fishing communities who see such moves as an attack on their livelihoods.
As a result, debate over how best to protect the whales has often been drawn out, wasting precious time for a species on the brink of extinction. “We can’t lose a single whale a year right now,” says Heather Pettis, a scientist at the New England Aquarium, Boston, US. “They really need some immediate action.”
The push for protections has been further complicated by a warming ocean. “This is climate change in action,” says Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “You have the most endangered large whale in the north Atlantic having to go further afield to find food because the Gulf of Maine is warming up.”
This search for food has been blamed for the whale’s increased presence in Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence, an area teeming with ship traffic. It’s a bitter twist on an earlier conservation victory: in 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the nearby Bay of Fundy to avoid an important area for the whales.
“When we think of climate change, we think of things happening like the glaciers melting over 100 years,” says Brown. “This has happened in a decade. The pace is phenomenal.”
The overlapping threats facing the whales hint at the complexity of the conservation issues involved, four decades after a groundswell of support pushed the International Whaling Commission to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling, says Greenpeace’s Willie Mackenzie.
“Directly shooting them in the head with a harpoon is obviously a bad thing,” says Mackenzie. “But if we’re talking about ship strikes or fishing interactions, what’s the answer? You don’t get as many fish? You shouldn’t buy as much stuff? It’s not a direct cause and effect thing that people can understand very simply.”
He ascribes some of the success of the earlier campaign to imagery, whether it was the blood-soaked horror of commercial whaling captured by Greenpeace, or the awe-inspiring acrobatics of whales. The same strategy is now complicated by the fact that many of the species most at risk today are shyer and less well-known.
“There’s a PR job here and humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much,” he says, citing images of humpbacks spectacularly leaping out of the water or slapping their tails on the surface. “If you want to show people the majesty of a whale, that’s the picture you have to show them because they’re not going to be very excited about a black lump in the ocean or a really distant picture of something deep diving.”
Around the Canary Islands, more than six weeks after the North Atlantic right whale was spotted, researchers continue to search for clues. “Right now, there’s not much hope that it will appear again,” says Aguilar. “A newborn of that age is dependent on the mother. Maybe they’ve reunited and are still in the area. But if it is still not with its mother and has not been adopted by another whale, then it has died.”
Still, she is quick to characterise the sighting as a “historical moment” for the region. “It was a moment that gave me shivers and made me want to cry,” she says. “To have a whale considered extinct appear in the Canary Islands, it’s proof that nature, if we take care of it, has an enormous capacity to recover.”