We have seen some interesting responses from people when we tell them we are looking for a whale whose population has only around thirty left. Most people look at us, raise their eyebrows, tilt their head to one side, nod slowly up and down, and pause a bit before responding. Their responses make sense. If someone else told me they were looking for a bird or fish or lizard that only spends 10% of its lifetime where humans can see it and there’s only a handful left, I might respond the same way. It’s true; we are unlikely to actually find one. But we have a better chance of finding one out on the water than we do at the dock in Seattle.
The next question is usually: Why North Pacific right whales? Good question. It would be a lot easier to make a film about orcas or humpbacks. But it’s telling an unknown story that made the right whale an easy choice. Even the crew onboard, outdoor educators and whale nerds, had never really heard of these whales. Captain Kevin became passionate about learning more in 2013 when a right whale was seen off the coast of Washington because he too had never really heard of it. Most people with some science background know about these whales as “the right whale to kill” which is how, unfortunately enough, they got their name. Kevin realized an opportunity to tell a story of the unknown whale, and well folks, here we are.
They were “the right whale to kill”; traveling at top speeds of only five miles per hour and floated once killed. This brings a little bit of understanding to how 30,000 North Pacific right whales were killed between 1840 and 1850, with 19,000 of those whales belonging to the eastern population. The whaling expeditions also under reported their findings; so it can be assumed that for every one whale recorded as killed, add two or three. In some whaling expeditions, less than half of the targeted whales were recovered. By 1870, North Pacific right whales were considered a rare species. Thirty years is all it took to put these whales on the brink of extinction.
It is really easy to read over those numbers and not understand what they actually mean. When commercial whaling started to target the Northeast Pacific Ocean, it was around thirty years later until one whale species was almost exterminated from its historical distribution range. Thirty years, 30,000 right whales. But that is only what was recorded. Three whales dead for every one recorded, so over thirty years, 90,000 North Pacific right whales were hunted, killed, and used for products, such as oil, wax, and cosmetics. These numbers approximately add up to 3,000 right whales killed every year, eight per day. Eight right whales were killed each day for thirty years. Also, important to keep in mind to fully understand the severity and impact of the whaling industry, is that these numbers are only for right whales. Humpbacks, fin, sperm whales, all of these other extraordinary whales have their own stories, similar to this one. An important exception, right whales have not started to recover.
The story we strive to share with you is about the North Pacific right whale’s eastern population. Until 2008, there were two known species of right whales, the Northern and Southern, with the equator being the hypothetical geographic divider. Both species had been listed endangered since the early 1970s. Then the Northern right whale was divided into two, the North Pacific and the North Atlantic, both still considered critically endangered. Within the North Pacific right whale, there are two distinct stocks or populations, the western and the eastern. The western population is found off Russia and in the Sea of Okhotsk and is thought to have a couple hundred. The eastern population is the population we want to tell you about, which is thought to have only thirty surviving individuals.
All of these numbers and facts are helpful to understand what a North Pacific right whale is. But to us, what seems almost more important is what caused those numbers. Right whales were so easy to hunt making them an obvious target, in all oceans, not just the Pacific. But when you think about hunting whales now, it seems crazy. There is enough scientific evidence out there that supports cetacean intelligence, family bonds, mourning behaviors, and emotional levels that makes harpooning a whale and making perfume out of it’s nine inch blubber seem like something you would never imagine. And it’s true; the whaling process seems barbaric now, but that whole industry happened not too long ago. All this scientific evidence and change of heart has happened within one person’s lifetime. When visiting Coal Harbor we met with a gentleman that worked at the whaling station for many years and remembers a right whale being brought into the station in 1951. He talked about how it was just another job, that’s what happened back then. But it’s not happening today. In just a couple decades we changed our mindset for the better about utilizing whales for anthropocentric reasons and realized the ethics, rather lack there of, behind the olden ways. In just a couple decades all of this changed and now the idea of whaling seems cruel and beyond fathom. Then again, it’s also beyond fathom how in just a couple decades the North Pacific right whale was killed to the brink of extinction.
We have a responsibility to undo what we did. Even though it was not you and me who harpooned 30,000 right whales, these whales may go extinct because of humans. They may go extinct before we find where the whale’s calving grounds are, understand their incredibly complex communication patterns, and appreciate them in other ways than perfume and oil. Humans need to carry the weight of actions from past generations, whether it was “just another job back then”, and remain accountable for the recovery. Whether or not we believe the recovery of North Pacific right whales is possible, it is our responsibility to try.
NOAA published their Recovery Plan for the North Pacific right whale in 2013. This one sentence is a fine summary.
“The difficulty in gathering data, as well as the extremely small abundance of eastern North Pacific right whales makes it impossible to give a timeframe to recovery for this species.”