ABOARD THE HELEN H - About 17 nautical miles south of Nantucket, a half-dozen New England Aquarium researchers scrambled across this vessel’s icy deck. Clutching binoculars, clipboards and cameras, they strained to catch a glimpse and scribble notes about a pair of creatures they fear are disappearing from this world.
After nine hours on the water, Amy Warren’s team had found two animals it knew by name. As the pair arched their heads above the water, the research scientist urged her colleagues with cameras to capture them.
“Get it, get it, get it, get it!”
With only about 300 left, the North Atlantic right whale ranks as one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. Nearly annihilated centuries ago by whalers, the slow-swimming species is said to have earned its name because it was the “right” whale to hunt.
Old-fashioned harpoons have yielded to other threats. Humans are still killing right whales at startlingly high numbers — but by accident. Waters free from whalers now brim with ships that strike them, and ropes that entangle them.
The latest challenges come in a changing climate. Rising temperatures are driving them to new seas. And soon, dozens of offshore wind turbines - part of President Joe Biden’s clean energy agenda - will encroach their habitat as the administration tries to balance tackling global warming with protecting wildlife.
As the Helen H teetered, Warren called out, “There’s a third whale!” This one they didn’t recognize. That’s when Warren, the trip’s coordinator, and her team began thinking about fetching another piece of equipment.
To better understand this unknown whale, they would need a crossbow.
Watching whales vanish one by one, by name
Humans have chased right whales in the Atlantic for at least a millennium. In Europe, Basque whale hunters between modern-day France and Spain scanned the horizon from stone towers. Whales swarmed the Mayflower after it set anchor off of Cape Cod, and soon colonists went hunting them there, too.
Herman Melville called right whales “morning mowers.” The enormous carnivore siphons microscopic zooplankton near the ocean surface much the way a deer grazes a meadow, making them ready targets. And unlike many other whales, rights float after dying, making them easier to haul.
While the slaughter obliterated the species, the spoils helped make the modern world. Whale oil lubricated the machines of the Industrial Revolution and lit growing cities. Comb-like structures called baleen, used to filter food, were cut from their lips and fashioned into collars, corsets and petticoats. By the American Revolution, the island of Nantucket stood as the capital of the nascent nation’s booming whaling business.
Early on a frigid March morning this year, the New England Aquarium’s charter boat steered south under the starlight between Nantucket and neighboring Martha’s Vineyard.
During Cape Cod’s bustling summer season, the Helen H takes out tourists hoping to catch fluke and cod. During a late-winter lull, the research scientists rented the 100-foot boat. With windy weather forecast, the research team launched from Barnstable, Mass., at 3 a.m. to reach whale-filled waters by sunrise.
The six-member research team bundled up in hats, gloves, boots and flame-colored float coats. Every hour, they rotated around the boat - one looking off the stern, a few from the bow and another in the wheelhouse while the others warmed in the cabin, napping, snacking and playing Wordle.
“Whale biologists have to have the patience of a monk and the sprinting ability of an athlete,” said Philip Hamilton, who has worked at the aquarium for 33 years, “because you go from doing absolutely nothing, like this, and then all of a sudden, a lot of action.”
But the whales have been difficult to come by. “We call it noncooperative behavior,” Kelsey Howe, a right whale research assistant, said while scanning off of the stern through polarized sunglasses to help distinguish the whales from the water.
Howe grew up inland, in Utah. “The Great Salt Lake doesn’t count,” she said. But like most on the boat, she obsessed over whales as a kid. In junior high, she went to a sleepaway camp in California for wannabe marine biologists, and in many ways is living out a childhood dream. But as this morning passed, there were no whales in sight.
“You’re getting the full whale surveying experience, which is sometimes not a whole lot,” she said.
Tucked in the wheelhouse, Warren, also a right whale research assistant, charted a course along the shoals, monitoring the weather and coordinating with colleagues in a plane overhead spying for whales from the sky. Marine mammals started for her, too, as “one of those childhood obsessions” she grew into rather than out of. As an adult, she worked her way up from deckhand to naturalist on whale-watching tours in New England.
“Sometimes you could watch someone fall in love with a whale in that moment.”
Now with her computer she can access a census of nearly every right whale in American and Canadian waters, based on 1.2 million photos submitted by 684 observers working from Newfoundland to Florida. The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog contains the age, sex, sightings, physical features and family lineage of nearly every member of the species, with data dating back to 1935. If right whales vanish for good, scientists would be able to watch them go extinct one by one, by name.
A comeback falters
The birth of Big Oil, now an environmental pariah, helped pull right whales away from the brink.
The first commercial well in western Pennsylvania in 1859 signaled the end of the U.S. whaling industry. As petroleum products replaced those made from baleen and blubber, whales got a reprieve.
By 1935, the world’s nations agreed to stop hunting right whales. The passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act a year later cemented safeguards, at least on paper, along the Eastern Seaboard.
But by then, the damage was done. More than three centuries of whaling killed at least 5,500 right whales in the western Atlantic, according to one conservative estimate from biologists.
For two decades, the whales made a slow recovery, with their population nearing 500 by 2010. But progress faltered as the species struggled to survive in an ocean crowded and altered by people.
For a species that eats and socializes at the surface, boat strikes pose a major threat. Since 2008, NOAA Fisheries, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has required boats bigger than 65 feet to slow down in the whale’s habitat at certain times of the year.
Yet carcasses with deep S-shaped gashes from propellers are still washing ashore. Enforcing a speed limit on the open ocean is difficult, and even a strike from a small vessel zipping across the water can kill a massive mammal. The agency said it plans to propose an updated speed rule this spring.
Rope presents an even trickier threat. Traps used to catch lobster and crabs ensnare whales that swim into the lines tethering the pots below to buoys at the surface. Whales can drag fishing gear for miles, leaving the animals exhausted, starved and scarred.
Over the summer, the Biden administration issued new fishing restrictions meant to cut down on the number of entanglements off New England. Jonah crab and lobster fishermen now must reduce the number of buoy lines and use rope weak enough to break under a whale’s weight. The administration plans to issue more fishing rules over the next decade.
But almost immediately, the fishing industry and environmental groups filed competing lawsuits over the government’s plans.
For the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, the new rule falls short of the government’s own science. The agency projects that the fisheries may seriously injure or kill right whales above the rate needed to sustain the species.
For the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and other operators using traps, the federal framework is “draconian” and may drive them out of business, according to their lawsuit.
The cost of buying special rope designed to sink, so as not to ensnare right whales, is adding up for Jon Williams, a fisherman in New Bedford who owns 14 boats that catch lobster, crab and hagfish. “We’re buying an awful lot more rope than we ever used to, for sure,” he said.
Williams is planning to test what many conservationists hail as a lasting solution: traps with no rope at all. This new “ropeless” gear descends with a compressed air canister and a deflated balloon. With the tap of a button, the balloon inflates and brings the traps to the surface.
Williams is eager to try out the new gear in deep waters to trap red crab. But he cautioned it would be hard to fish without rope in more crowded spots, such as the area south of Nantucket.
“Without a buoy marking where his gear is, you have no idea where he is. So you just end up sitting over top of people, and it’s a mess,” he said. “It’s pretty much impossible.”
‘It can’t be more than a mosquito bite’
Midmorning, the Helen H caught a break: The aerial team spotted a group of right whales. Warren set a course north.
To the uninitiated, right whales are otherworldly. A narrow upper jaw and bowed lower jaw form a permanent frown, giving the impression it is swimming upside-down. Thick patches of cornified skin around the head, dubbed callosities, are infested with cream-colored “whale lice” that contrasts their inky bodies.
The callosity patterns, like fingerprints, are unique to each whale, allowing researchers who have pored over whale catalogue photos to recognize plenty in the wild. Scars, however, have emerged as more identifiable marks for many whales.
“Head scars!” Warren yelled over the wind as the boat approached the whales. “Two! Two whales.”
“It has like a - it’s a double island,” said Howe, describing the shape of a callosity.
“The one I looked at had really good, very even, multiple scars,” Hamilton said.
“So A and B both have a lot of head scars,” Warren said.
The team quickly realized Whale “A” was Marlin. The 14-year-old male comes from a hardy lineage, with both of his parents and two siblings still living. “That’s sadly quite rare,” Hamilton said.
In his short life, Marlin has endured entanglement in fishing gear twice, including when rope caught in his mouth in 2009 off the coast of North Carolina. He managed to shed the line within several weeks, but not before gashing his back.
The second whale, “B,” is named Sawtooth. He, too, bears a distinctive mark: A jagged scar at the end of his tail, lending him his name. This 15-year-old male also got ensnared as a juvenile in the waters between South Carolina and Florida, the right whale’s only known birthing grounds.
In 2009, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources tracked Sawtooth for days with a satellite-linked buoy. Wildlife officials partially disentangled him. Within a month, he had freed himself entirely. But his baleen was permanently damaged.
Now, Hamilton said: “He looks good. Really healthy skin.”
The identity of the third whale, “C,” proved more elusive. Not every whale gets a name, and Warren suspected it was #3629. This one needed to be darted.
To gather whale DNA and hormone levels, researchers are permitted to use a crossbow to take a biopsy. Specialized arrows are equipped with a float and tipped with a small, hollow and sterile cylinder with barbs on the inside grab a bit of skin.
Warren had watched but never collected her own biopsy, practicing with the bow at the aquarium’s field house in Maine.
While unsheathing the bow from its green bag, Warren said whales sometimes twitch but otherwise don’t seem to mind. For a creature as long as a school bus, she said, “it can’t be more than a mosquito bite.”
‘Really dangerous work’
This area near the Nantucket Shoals wasn’t always such a right whale hot spot. And this changing migration pattern has complicated the Biden administration’s environmental agenda.
The aquarium’s aerial team started tracking the animals here after developers began eyeing these waters for offshore wind projects. This is the first year the New England Aquarium has searched the region, sandwiched between Nantucket and the shipping lanes out of New York, by boat.
Biden officials are racing to permit construction of hundreds of turbines up and down the East Coast - many in the middle of right whale habitat. Its goal is to get 30 gigawatts of offshore wind - enough to power more than 10 million homes - online by the end of the decade.
Among the first approved projects is Vineyard Wind, which plans to place 62 turbines taller than the Washington Monument south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Building that infrastructure will involve offshore crews working in the domain of a whale that can’t take very many more collisions.
To help win project approval, the developers, the Spanish-controlled firm Avangrid Renewables and the Danish company Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, agreed to forgo pile-driving during the winter - peak whale season in the area, though researchers now see it as a year-round habitat. To cut down on noise, Vineyard Wind will envelope the foundations in curtains of bubbles, foam or both during construction, among other measures.
“While these benefits of offshore wind power - they’re undeniable, they’re exciting - it’s also critical to make sure that this new industry advances in a way that’s compatible with healthy ocean ecosystems,” said Francine Kershaw, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that struck a deal with offshore wind developers to better protect whales. “We believe that both of these goals can be achieved.”
But Amy DiSibio, a retired stock trader who has vacationed in Nantucket for three decades, said many are turning a blind eye to noise and other ecological impacts of the energy project simply because it is branded green. “Wind farm sounds really nice,” she said. “It’s a power plant. It really is.”
Her group, Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, accuses the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which approved the turbines, of failing to protect the right whale in its lawsuit. The effort has attracted support from many conservatives.
David Stevenson, a former member of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team, has helped Nantucket Residents Against Turbines with publicity. And the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Austin, is representing fishing groups that oppose turbines being built where they work.
“If we were talking about an oil and gas platform,” said Robert Henneke, the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s executive director and general counsel, “there’s absolutely no way that the federal government would be allowing that kind of a construction project in this area.”
But the Biden administration is encouraging offshore wind development to meet its global pledge to cut carbon emissions and avert dangerous warming.
But climate change is already compounding the right whale’s woes. In the heavily trafficked North Atlantic, right whales are already scrawnier and reproduce less often than their cousins around Antarctica. Warming waters are now bringing zooplankton to unprotected waters, and the whales are following their prey faster than regulators or scientists can keep up.
2017 was the worst year - both for the whales and the humans trying to save them.
Seventeen right whales were found dead that summer, many killed by entanglements or boat strikes after abandoning areas with better protections in place.
To stop the death count from spiraling further, Hamilton worked that July with Joe Howlett, a friend and lobsterman with experience freeing entangled whales, to cut a badly ensnarled male loose with a long, hooked knife in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then disaster struck.
The whale “flicked its tail into the boat,” Hamilton said, pausing, “and killed him instantly.”
“It’s really, really dangerous work.”
The wind that will soon bring turbines to these waters around the Helen H picked up in the afternoon. As the boat rocked, Warren and Hamilton huddled and came to a decision: The gusts were too great to dart #3629. The whale would retain some of its secrets.
“I was all gung-ho to give it a shot, even though it’s going to be pretty challenging,” Hamilton said between bites of turkey chili as he warmed up in the cabin. “Then I stepped outside.”
“At that point,” Warren added, “just a little bit of wind will take the arrow completely in the wrong direction.”
The team left the three creatures - 1 percent of the entire species’ population - in search of another pod the plane spotted, uncertain when they would see them again. Studying an endangered species, Warren said, is “definitely a roller coaster of emotions.” Every newborn calf brings delight. Every death fosters dread. There may now be more people studying North Atlantic right whales than there are right whales.
“It’s just - it can be really frustrating,” she said. “At least for me, I find that also drives me in working harder.”