The right whales’ darkest summer

By Chris Baraniuk

It has been a catastrophic summer for the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the people dedicated to saving them.

The phone was ringing. Anthony François at the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network in Tadoussac picked it up. Someone from a coast guard vessel was on the line. He said he was in the Gulf of St Lawrence – a 226,000 sq km expanse of sea in northeastern Canada – and he had just seen a dead whale floating in the water. It was a big one. A blue whale or a fin whale, maybe. After hanging up, Anthony quickly texted his supervisor, Josiane Caban. She said they would need pictures to confirm what sort of whale it was. The next morning photos arrived and it was immediately clear this wasn’t a blue whale or a fin whale at all. It was a different species, also an endangered one – a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).

Philip Hamilton watches a mother and calf right whale dive in the Bay of Fundy. © Moira Brown | New England Aquarium
Philip Hamilton watches a mother and calf right whale dive in the Bay of Fundy. © Moira Brown | New England Aquarium
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Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was also involved now. Ideally, a satellite tag would have been attached to the whale’s carcass so that it could be tracked. Thanks to wind and waves, floating bodies of whales can move surprisingly far in a short space of time. But in this case, observers lost sight of the body and bad weather made it difficult to continue searches at one point. The whale never reappeared.

But then, a week and a half later, another report was made by snow crab fishermen working in the Gulf of St Lawrence. They had seen a dead whale, a different individual. And the next day, yet another sighting of a dead whale came through – from DFO officers. There were even more reports of lifeless, floating whales on the 21, 22 and 23 June. All of these animals turned out to be separate individuals. Wimmer looked at the reports in disbelief.

They had already lost sight of one. There was no way she wanted to lose another.

A series of conference calls, a barrage of emails and meetings all culminated in a huge effort, mobilised in a matter of days, to tow three of the carcasses to a beach at a place called Norway on the northwestern point of Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence. A team of veterinarians and volunteer helpers was assembled. They would soon be crawling over the whale carcasses, taking measurements and gradually slicing pieces of the animal away to try and find out what everyone desperately wanted to know: what was the cause of death?

whales swimming
A mother right whale and her calf photographed in 2014. © Moira Brown | New England Aquarium

Among the vets asked to help by Wimmer and her team were Prof Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wildlife pathologist at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Émilie Couture from Granby Zoo in Quebec. On the morning of 29 June, they and about 20 others arrived on a beach of reddish-brown sand where the necropsy would take place. The sky was clear and the sea a brilliant blue, waves roiling at the shoreline. But as they approached via the green grass behind the beach, it was the thing splayed out in front of them that set the tone: the carcass of a 33-year-old North Atlantic right whale, dragged ashore by a digger with caterpillar tracks. 14 metres long, it had been decomposing for more than ten days. There was no time to lose.

Couture, like the others assembled for a long three days’ work, was kitted out. Waterproof clothes. Duct tape sticking sleeves to gloves and trouser legs to rain boots. Apart from being messy, dissecting a decomposing whale is also extraordinarily pungent work. No-one knows how to describe the stench. A bit like rancid fat, says Couture. But more than that – it’s a smell that could only belong to something fleshy and rotten.

“As a pathologist I have a lot of experience with bad smells,” says Daoust. “And I would say a rotten pig has a unique smell, a rotten cow has a unique smell – a rotten whale does too and I cannot describe it.”

The beaches where those first three necropsies were performed are popular holiday spots – Couture sometimes noticed visitors walking by, holding their noses.

To begin with, examining the animal involved looking at its skin – were any scars or lacerations visible that might offer a clue to trauma? Were fins or bits of flesh missing? Then the team would cut into blubber, carving out huge square pieces with knives. The knives would have to be periodically sharpened, so dense was the tissue. And cutting into it with blunt knives is dangerous, explains Couture. If you have to apply too much pressure, the knife can slip and injure someone.

woman and dead whale
Émilie Couture was part of the necropsy team investigating the whale's death. © Nigel Quinn

Measuring the thickness of the blubber is important, to tell how well-fed the animal was before it died. And then the team can start slicing into the flesh, removing it from the skeleton and identifying internal organs. But even that is a challenge. Because a whale carcass is so well-insulated, heat and pressure build up inside the animal as it decomposes. It literally cooks its own organs, turning the insides to a thick, soupy mass. Sometimes, organs that should be there simply can’t be located. Some are pushed out of the whale’s mouth by the rising pressure and disappear at sea. Whatever is left, the pathologists do their best to document.

Finally, it is important to remove the animal’s head and examine the cavity inside – a job that also requires help from the digger. Sometimes a few dislocated internal organs are found in the mouth as well.

Besides all of this hard physical work, the team took many samples to test in the lab for signs of illness, poisoning and genetic markers so that the whales could be identified wherever possible.

Often, a necropsy like this can last much longer than a day. But the team were attempting to do three, with only one day allocated for each. It was gruesome and exhausting.

People were involved in efforts to save the right whales this summer in all kinds of ways. One person who had already been contacted during efforts to identify the dead animals from coast guard and DFO photographs was Philip Hamilton, at the at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. The aquarium is an important centre for right whale studies because it keeps a detailed catalogue of individuals, identified by a unique number and, often, a nickname.

woman and dead whale
Often a necropsy like this can last longer than a day. © Nigel Quinn

On 1 July, Hamilton arrived in the Gulf of St Lawrence on his research ship, a 15 metre yacht called the Shelagh. That was the same day that the veterinarians and volunteers finished their necropsy of the third whale.

Hamilton had already been sent photographs of the animal to identify it visually. He knew which whale it was and genetic testing would later confirm the ID. This was number 3603 in the aquarium’s catalogue: an 11 year-old female called “Starboard”. The nicknames are often inspired by markings or features on the whale’s body. In this case, Starboard was so-called because she was missing half of her right tail fluke.

Thanks to the aquarium catalogue, we know the identities of Starboard’s father and mother. We know that she had three sisters and a total of eight aunts and uncles. Her maternal grandmother, a whale nicknamed Baldy, had given birth to at least nine calves. She was last sighted in 2016 and is believed to still be alive.

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Philip Hamilton captains the RV Nereid in the Bay of Fundy during a right whale survey. © Jonathan Cunha | New England Aquarium

That was 6 June, earlier this year. No-one who works with marine mammals in Canada or the US realised it at the time, but that whale would be the first of 16 to die in the course of just five months, 12 in Canadian waters, four in US. A possible 17th fatality was also recently reported. It’s a far larger number of recorded deaths in a single year than in any year since the end of whaling in the early 20th Century. For a species that is now believed to consist of fewer than 500 individuals, it has been a catastrophic summer.

One marine biologist told me she was left feeling “numb” by the tally. Another has calculated that the species now faces possible extinction within 25 years.

This is the story of what happened to the whales that died this summer, and how we know. But it is also the story of some of the dedicated human beings who worked tirelessly to understand what went wrong, who attempted to save these creatures from further harm and – in one tragic case – even lost their life while doing so.

When Tonya Wimmer heard about the whale sighted on 6 June, she was determined to get it towed to shore so that veterinarians could perform a necropsy (another name for an autopsy) and, hopefully, find out how it died. As director of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a non-governmental organisation based in Halifax, Canada, the death of a right whale was a number one priority event.

people on a boat with a camera
Philip Hamilton steers the Shelagh towards a right whale in the Gulf of St Lawrence while Megan McOsker photographs another for identification studies. © Hansen Johnson | Canadian Whale Institute

But what had happened to Starboard? A relatively young whale, she had been found by DFO officers on 21 June, floating upside down and wrapped in fishing gear. Entanglement. A few garishly coloured plastic buoys bobbed in the sea by her carcass as a flock of hungry seabirds swarmed around or waddled over her body.

When the pathologists examined her carcass on the shore, they could see clear markings, perhaps made by the ropes that had ensnared her. And her blubber was unusually thin – a sign that she may have starved to death after not being able to eat for weeks or months. “You can imagine from an individual perspective,” says Daoust, “how terrible a death it is.”

These details would later be published, but at the time, Hamilton and his team were just getting settled in to Prince Edward Island, ready to help with further photo identification and observation work on live whales in the area. There was also a job to do in terms of protecting the many whales that were still alive.

Arriving in Northport, Hamilton was joined by Joe Howlett, a lobsterman and whale entanglement responder; right whale conservationist Kelsey Howe; naturalist Megan McOsker; Hansen Johnson and Delphine Durette Morin from Dalhousie University; Pam Emery from the DFO; and two student researchers. They pitched up at the Northport Pier Inn, a seaside venue that looks out over Alberton Harbour, off Prince Edward Island. The Gulf of St Lawrence stretches far to the north.

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Philip Hamilton and Pam Emery recording data on the Shelagh in the Gulf of St Lawrence while the late Joe Howlett helps keep a look out. © Delphine Durette Morin | Canadian Whale Institute

They spent much of their time on the boat, but to do photo ID work and make calls, they needed somewhere with wi-fi. The owners at the Northport Inn didn’t mind the whale scientists camping out in their lounge, working away on their laptops. “They’d even apologize for disturbing us when they had to clean,” remembers Hamilton.

He, Howlett and the others would sit there, poring over images of live whales that had been surveyed – it was important to know which individuals were frequenting the Gulf of St Lawrence since it was obviously a dangerous place for them, and also to get a sense of how much of the population might now be there. As the days unfolded, it became clear that huge numbers were indeed present – at least as many as a hundred were identified over the ensuing months.

As Hamilton knew from having conducted many surveys himself in the past, the species usually focuses its feeding further south, in the Bay of Fundy. Why were so many whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence? And what was harming them?

As Starboard’s necropsy had shown, the presence of fishing gear was clearly a hazard. Over the next few days, Hamilton and his colleagues’ observations from the Shelagh would occasionally be disrupted by news that a live whale nearby had become ensnared. That’s exactly what happened on 9 July. Howlett, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, was extremely experienced in disentangling whales. He had been doing it for years. The moustachioed 59 year-old had often been pictured in a baseball cap and sunglasses, balancing himself at the side of a boat, engaged in the act of freeing one of these gigantic creatures. The following day he and Hamilton were aboard the Shelagh, heading to the location of the whale in difficulty. In order to reach it in time, they later transferred to a faster DFO boat.

Everybody was deeply impacted by Joe’s death and all the events around it.”

Philip HamiltonNew England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

It would take about an hour to come upon the whale. Hamilton remembers standing in the wheelhouse with the captain while Howlett perched himself right at the bow, ready to get to work. He was getting splashed by spray and, although the captain suggested he take shelter for a little while, Howlett declined, says Hamilton. He loved being at sea.

At last, the whale came into view – it was a bad entanglement, a complicated one. Ropes were wrapped around its body about 12 times and one of its flippers seemed to be caught, too. The year before, Howlett had disentangled a whale in the Bay of Fundy in a similar condition – that had taken six hours.

The small team circled the whale on their boat, grabbing video footage with a GoPro that they held underwater at the end of a pole. The pictures revealed more detail about the looping of the ropes around the animal. This individual turned out to be catalogue number 4123 – a six year-old male that had last been sighted the previous August.

Helpfully, it seemed calm and content to remain at the surface. Sometimes right whales are prone to diving when boats come near. But this one gave Howlett a good opportunity to see where one particular rope line was wrapped across its left side, down towards its mouth. Carefully manoeuvring a hooked knife attached to a carbon fibre pole, the lobsterman plucked at the line and soon cut it through. The whale flipped some water into the boat with its tail, but stayed put. Howlett waited and then went in for a second cut but at that point the whale began to sink. Hamilton remembers that he had to pull straight up with the pole, yanking at that rope with the edge of his knife.

“All I saw was a flick of the tail as the whale went down,” says Hamilton. “The dorsal side of the tail flopped into the bow of the boat.” The bow filled with water, the boat itself swayed with the force of the huge animal’s tail connecting with it. And when the tail slid away, the crew saw what had happened. Howlett had been hit.

“I got to him within a second or two,” says Hamilton. He performed CPR on his friend for more than an hour. But when they reached the shore, Howlett was pronounced dead. Transport Canada is currently investigating what happened.

That very day, Doust, Couture, Wimmer and others were on-site at another necropsy – the fifth of the summer. The news reached them. Many of the people working there knew Howlett, had been involved in whale conservation with him. The shock was palpable. Although Daoust and Couture did not know the whale disentangler well, the fact that others present did was obvious. The two vets noticed volunteers stepping aside from their work, filled with grief, wiping tears from their eyes.

Back in Northport, Hamilton tried to gather his thoughts on the Shelagh over the ensuing days.

“It was very comforting to me to be on that boat, sort of seeped in everything Joe because, you know, I have so many memories of him on that boat,” he says. “It was really helpful to see the team that had gone through this.

“Everybody was deeply impacted by Joe’s death and all the events around it.”

Ever since then, right whale disentanglements have been put on hold by the DFO.

Eleven days later, the body of a right whale was stretched out on a beach on Miscou Island, New Brunswick. Pierre-Yves Daoust and the others looked on as Noel Milliea, an elder from the Elsipogtog First Nation aboriginal tribe, said a prayer. In his hands, Milliea held a bald eagle feather and some burning herbs as he performed the rite. To Daoust the smoke smelled pleasant and sweet – like sage or sweet grass, perhaps.

In that moment of pause and silence, as Milliea prayed quietly for the stricken whale, Daoust had a rare chance to stand still and contemplate this animal. This impossibly big animal that was now wrecked and washed up. He thought about what could have happened to it, the power of the moment seeping through him.

After the prayer was over, Milliea explained to the vets and volunteers that, to his people, a dead whale like this is something that brings a message – it says something about what is happening out there, what is happening in the sea. In any case, Daoust knew, the point was that this meant something curiously similar to the elder and to him alike.

As the stillness of the blessing passed, the activity of a necropsy started up once again. It was the team’s sixth. Over the ensuing hours, as Couture worked her way deeper and deeper into the animal with her fellow crew, she found yet more sludge inside the carcass. A thick, very dark brown, putty-like gloop. She and the others had seen it before. They had handled it, walked through it in other whale carcasses that summer, kneeled in it as they worked. Whenever she held it in her hands it felt thick and a bit waxy, Couture thought. But it was somehow crumbly, too. To Daoust it seemed reminiscent of raw blood sausage, or black pudding.

And it was a key bit of evidence. To be exact, the same putty had been found during four previous necropsies. This was whale number 2140 in the New England Aquarium catalogue, a 26 year-old male nicknamed “Peanut” – after a peanut-shaped scar on its back. It was a whale that Philip Hamilton had seen many times in the Bay of Fundy. He had always recognised it quickly.

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Right whale (*Eubalaena glacialis*). © NEFSC/NOAA

As the vets and volunteers peeled away the layers of Peanut’s body, they found that putty in its chest and covering parts of vertebrae. Elsewhere on Peanut were signs of haemorrhaging. The putty, they were all but certain, was blood – cooked by heat and pressure building up in the decomposing carcass. And the team would ultimately conclude that this whale, like the four others with similar features, had been killed by a ship strike.

Over the next few weeks, more North Atlantic right whale deaths would be reported, bringing the total at the time to 15. Genetic testing eventually confirmed that they were all separate individuals. A final necropsy was performed on 19 September.

Tonya Wimmer at MARS worked closely with Daoust, Couture and others on the 200-page incident report that was later published by the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, MARS and the DFO on 5 October. It explained the sightings, results of the necropsies and gave detail about shipping and fishing activity in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The report was dedicated to the memory of Joe Howlett.

At the press conference, Daoust, Couture, Wimmer and Matthew Hardy from the DFO’s science branch briefed the media on the findings: the whales’ deaths were the result of human activity. Wimmer said the fate of the species was “in our hands”.

The following month, whale expert Mark Baumgartner from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts presented a worrying calculation at a conference on North Atlantic right whales. Given the number now believed to be alive, and the proportion of breeding females, he estimated the entire population could disappear in as little as 23 years if a handful of females continue to die each year.

And Moira Brown at the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute told me, “Any cautious optimism we had for the recovery of this population between 1990 and 1999… has all been dashed.”

It’s not known for sure why right whales apparently moved in such large numbers into the Gulf of St Lawrence this year – it certainly seems to have put them at greater risk of trauma and entanglement. The leading theory is that the food they eat, plankton, was uncommonly sparse in the Bay of Fundy. Indeed, a survey of the plankton there in July found that they were not as fat as would be expected. That might have encouraged the whales to feed elsewhere.

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Right whale sighted during 2014 survey. © Christin Khan, NEFSC | NOAA

But as Wimmer said at the press conference, Canadian law gives special protection to endangered species like North Atlantic right whales.

“You can’t harm, harass, disturb or kill those animals anywhere they are found – that is not restricted to their critical habitat, it is anywhere,” she told reporters.

“So the measures very much have to go with the animal – and we have to be adaptive because they change where those areas are.”

There are now discussions with the fishing and shipping industries in the Gulf of St Lawrence about how vessel routes might be altered, or fishing gear updated and monitored. Many are keen, of course, to avoid harming the whales and have responded to the conservationists’ calls for dialogue.

At least one whale researcher who has watched events unfold this summer is optimistic that the Gulf of St Lawrence can adapt. The fisheries are profitable, sizeable businesses in the area, says Michael Moore at WHOI.

“The individuals involved will be motivated and capable of investing in appropriate technology to mitigate the problem,” he says, suggesting, for example, the adoption of crab traps that use fewer ropes linked to marker buoys on the surface.

But there’s no escaping the fact that this summer was terrible for North Atlantic right whales. And in the middle of it all, the loss of Joe Howlett was shocking and heart-breaking.

Howlett’s friend Philip Hamilton remains, like so many others in this field, deeply dedicated to monitoring right whales and improving our understanding of them.

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An adult male right whale feeding alongside white-sided dolphins. © Allison Henry | NOAA Fisherie

On 29 July he was still out on the Shelagh, documenting whales with his team. By then, they were back in the Bay of Fundy. Towards the end of the day, they came across three whales lolling at the water’s surface. They were feeding, which was unusual, thought Hamilton. He knew that right whales more often dive to feed on the bottom. He piloted the boat closer so his crewmates could take clearer pictures. He didn’t have a chance to peer at the whales through his binoculars then, but when he saw the photographs later, he was taken aback.

One of them was 4123, the whale that had been disentangled by Joe Howlett on 10 July. There it had been, 19 days later, more or less oblivious to the people sailing around it.

Hamilton stared at the images on his computer. They showed the whale’s head just breaching the placid surface.

“That was just a powerful feeling. I can’t describe what it was,” he says.

The moment confused him, he admits. He says it is rare that he finds it hard to put feelings into words, but that one still gives him pause today. “It was just big,” he says, recollecting. “It felt big.”

Of all the whales Hamilton observed in the Gulf of St Lawrence that summer, 4123 was the only one he saw again later in the Bay of Fundy. Calmly swimming there, the gentle water rippling round its head.