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Humpback whale. Image: Christopher Swann

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Risso's dolphin at surface

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

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Saving North Atlantic right whale habitats means saving the whales

PART 1

Over the years, I have watched North Atlantic right whales skim along the surface feeding on copepods, nudge each other in what seemed like play, and charge toward an inverted female attempting to mate.

All of these things happen in relatively predictable places and times of year.  Right whale habitats.

 I’ll never forget sailing out on a rainy summer day off southern Nova Scotia. Seas were choppy, and we’d resigned ourselves to a fog wetter than rain. Yet, after 5 or 6 hours of steady sailing straight out into the open sea, the sun came out, the sea calmed and we were suddenly in the midst of 30 right whales. This was Roseway Basin, a courtship area favored by the whales, which was in the middle of nowhere as far as I could determine. As we watched the whales play their courtship games, I was struck by the precision of the skipper’s knowledge about where the whales were found.

Right whales and other baleen whales travel the oceans, migrating thousands of miles every year. Yet like humpback, gray and some of the other better studied baleen whales, they travel along similar routes and return to some of the same habitats year after year, some of which we are still discovering. These specific areas are special to the whales for one reason or another.

In the cold, temperate waters of New England and the Bay of Fundy, such areas are where whales find dense patches of copepods and other food. By contrast, in the warm waters off the Southeast U.S., the habitat seems to be defined by water temperature and depth related to the best conditions for raising a newborn calf.

Still, as much as we can predict the location of certain habitats, the locations of portions of the population remain mysterious at any one time. We have to keep refining our knowledge of what constitutes a good habitat.

Right whales have large habitats as befits a large, highly mobile creature.  Compared to land, habitats in the sea for most species tend to be much larger, more fluid, with a certain amount of variation from year to year. But they are still definable and protecting these “homes for whales” is critical for their survival as well as a matter of legal responsibility in the U.S. and Canada with legislation that dictates a response when a species is endangered. The governments must try to locate and protect the troubled species’ critical habitat and follow up with a recovery plan.

Stay tuned for Part II next week!