Facing extinction, the North Atlantic right whale cannot adapt. Can we? | Philip Hoare

Once the right whale to hunt, Eubalaena glacialis is now been hit by nets, ships and changing seas. We are losing a beautiful beast

As if to confound everyone, this past week Dr Charles ” Stormy ” Mayo and his squad from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported insuring up to 150 right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Dr Mayo- who has been studying these animals for 40 years and has a scientist’s aversion to exaggeration- is stunned.

” It is astounding for such a rare and utterly odd being ,” he tells me. All the more amazing since he knows this great assembling could be a final flourish. By 2040, the North Atlantic right whale may be gone. He hesitates, then uses the e-word: extinction.

How can such a huge mammal simply disappear within reach of the richest and most powerful nation on globe? Shifting food sources- due to climate change- are leading whales to areas where maritime industries are unused to them. In the past 12 months, 18 rights have died after ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. With as few as 430 animals left, 100 of them breeding females in a reduced gene pool, the species is unsustainable.

The right whale may be the strangest brute in the ocean. Vast and rotund, its gigantic mouth is fringed with two-metre strips of baleen, once “harvested” by humen to furnish Venetian blinds and corset remains but used by the whale to strain its diet of rice-sized zooplankton from the sea.

These bizarre animals are not easily known or imagined. They live far longer than us- like its Arctic cousin, the bowhead, the right whale may reach 200, perhaps more. Someones could be older than constitutional America. They exist beyond us in time, dimension and experience. If we lose the right whale, “were losing” part of our planet’s biological history.

If any whale were to be so foolish as to claim nationality, the North Atlantic right whale would be American, spending all its life in US or Canadian waters. Its modern moniker, the urban whale, provokes its habit of foraging close to shore. Its historic name speaks to its fate. Being a surface-feeder, so near to land, made it vulnerable to humen. And when it was killed, its belt of blubber ensured that it floated conveniently. The right whale was in the incorrect place, at the wrong time.

By 1935, with as few as 60 breed people left, the situation was so dire that the right whale became the first cetacean to be protected by statute. But by the start of this century, the numbers seemed to recover. Shipping lanes were shifted and fishing industries took on board the whale’s protected status. It even got its own air exclusion zone.” Like a Hollywood superstar ,” as John Waters quipped to me.

For 18 years I’ve followed that tentative recovery in the water off Cape Cod. I’ve stumbled on to the winter beach to witness their fins and flukes tumbling so near the tide line I might have waded out to them. I’ve even watched them from my bed overlooking the bay. And on research cruises with the Center for Coastal Studies, special licence allowed us to approach close enough to see the whale louse( cyamids) crawling round their heads.

On one memorable trip-up in April 2015, scientist Christy Hudak and her team spotted 80 animals- nearly 20% of the population. It was like watching dinosaurs, but such is the sensitivity of the center’s work that I cannot show you the dozens of photo I took that day.

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A North Atlantic right whale at the surface. Photo: Brian J. Skerry/ NG/ Getty Images

That sense of a huge animal being and not being there speaks to a paradoxical fragility. Veteran whalewatch naturalist Dennis Minsky, are stationed in Provincetown, takes this story personally:” An ancient and noble animal is constitutionally unable to adapt to an array of anthropogenic menaces- speeding water craft, the myriad horizontal lines of fishing gear, an increasingly noisy ocean and poorly understood changes in water quality .” Federal and country efforts to help seem little more than” mere tinkering “. And with 80% of right whales showing scars from entanglement, what about their individual suffering?

” The lucky ones, I suppose, drown ,” Minsky tells.” Others go for months or even years, succumbing an excruciating demise .” Minsky shrugs, summing up the situation in five pithy terms:” They cannot adapt: can we ?”

Like Minsky and Mayo, I feel an intimate connection to the whales of the Cape, a place I hymn in my new book. This is the edge of our world, where we meet the other. As I swim in its water, winter and summer, I find it hard to see this as a site of mortality rather than life. What could save its most enigmatic, sensate and sentient animal? New fishing gear technology, tighter regulations? Maybe. But out there, swimming under the blue expanse that Melville called ” the ocean’s scalp”, Eubalaena glacialis requires one thing more than anything else. Our empathy. Just for a moment, can we stop thinking human, and start thinking whale?

  • Philip Hoare’s RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is published in the US by University of Chicago Press. An exhibition based on the themes of the book opens at the Merola Gallery, Provincetown, on 25 May

Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com

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