Researchers hope to find `right' whales, but right place is elusive

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 12,000 square miles of ocean, even something 50 feet long can seem very small and hard to find. But Scott Kraus, with a team of scientists from the New England Aquarium, is intent on tracking down right whales. He thinks a number of them are roaming in the Atlantic, somewhere between North Carolina and Florida.

The right whale was given its rather bemusing name by early whalers, explains Mimi Brown of the aquarium staff, because they found it was the ``right whale'' to hunt. It is a slow swimmer and yields large amounts of oil.

Mr. Kraus says the right is the rarest large whale on Earth, and the aquarium is trying to learn about it in order to promote its protection.

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Very little is known about the right whale. The aquarium began tracking it five years ago after more than a hundred rights were sighted in the Bay of Fundy and off the Nova Scotia Shelf.

One thing the researchers noticed right away, Kraus says, ``is that right whales disappear around November.''

Last year, New England Aquarium scientists surveyed an area off the coast of Georgia and found 15 right whales. By comparing photographs, they determined that 14 of them had summered in the Bay of Fundy.

This year, the aquarium team is surveying a larger area, stretching between Cape Hatteras and southern Florida, out as far as 40 miles. Kraus says the group will be ``shooting in the dark. The only reason we're going there, is that no one else has.'' But, he says, ``the whole stock is missing'' and it has to be somewhere.

An international prohibition against hunting the right whale has been in effect for almost 50 years. But that came about 1,000 years after the hunting started, Kraus says, leaving the whale all but extinct. Only 200 to 300 right whales remain in the North Atlantic, he estimates.

He says the scientists are using historical records to guide them in their search. Logbooks from whaling ships and records from an old shore-based whaling industry in Georgia pinpoint areas where right whales were once found.

Kraus says the expedition to find whales in the southern waters may add considerably to the knowledge of the little-known animal.

The research will help give a ``sense of a very small population [of animals] that may or may not be making a comeback.''

In 1937 an international treaty was signed to protect the right whale and a relative, the grey whale. The grey whale has flourished, growing from an estimated population of fewer than 600 to 16,000 now, says Kraus. But, he adds, ``The right whale is still a mere fraction of that.''

Why the two responded differently is ``a real mystery,'' says Kraus. It may be that when the prohibition took effect, there were so few right whales it has taken this long for them to reach a population of 200. Or perhaps man-made causes, such as pollution and shipping, have hindered their repopulation by excluding them from their natural habitat or upsetting the food chain.

Kraus says the aquarium's research in the Bay of Fundy showed that some of the right whales have survived collisions with large vessels. Also, 30 percent of them show signs of having been entangled in fishing gear. He says the annual reproduction rate for the animal is probably only 4 to 5 percent -- producing perhaps eight calves a year. ``Not many whales have to die to offset this growth,'' Kraus notes.

When more is known about these creatures, Kraus says, it will be up to the public ``to decide what it wants to do to save the right whales.'' And, he adds, since the right whales migrates, the joint efforts of both Canada and the United States will be required to protect them.

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