Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Right Whales, Wrong Place

• May 20, 2009 • 11:57 PM

The good news is that endangered whales can be found where they were thought extinct. The bad news is that a sea-going superhighway may soon overtake their unknown refuge.

According to research presented this week at the Acoustical Society of America conference in Portland, Ore., a team of scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented the presence of right whales in a region where they were previously believed to be extinct.

In 2007, between July and December, the team used hydrophones originally designed to detect undersea earthquakes to record more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations in the Cape Farewell Ground region, an area at the southern tip of Greenland. Scientists believe the previously unstudied area was historically home to an eastern population of North Atlantic right whales nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (A western population spans from Nova Scotia to the Florida panhandle.) In the last 50 years, only two right whales had been sighted in the Cape Farewell Ground area.

The number of recordings suggests the eastern population may persist, but the researchers are unable to estimate the exact number swimming in the frigid waters because, unlike sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins, right whales do not have individually distinct vocalizations.

The scientists are certain, though, that multiple individuals exist. “We did hear right whales at three widely spaced sites on the same day,” the project’s chief scientist David Mellinger said in a press release, “so the absolute minimum is three.” The number may seem small, but with an estimated population between 300 and 400, any documentation of additional North Atlantic right whales is significant whether or not they are members of an eastern population.

For researchers and whale lovers alike, however, the discovery of right whales in the Cape Farewell Ground area is both joyous and concerning. Should continued polar ice melt permanently open a Northwest Passage, the endangered, slow-moving mammal would be at even greater risk of ship strikes. (An average of 1.2 right whales are killed in ship strikes each year — a number that does not include death by fishing gear entanglement.) According to the vocalization recordings, the whales migrate from the southwest to northeast area of Cape Farewell Ground during the summer months, thereby placing themselves directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

“Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia, but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region,” said NOAA right whale expert Phillip Clapham in the press release, “It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Julia Griffin
Julia Griffin is a master's candidate in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A fellow at the Miller-McCune Center in 2009, before that she worked as a film researcher for John-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society and a producer/writer in CNN's Science and Technology Unit. She has a degree in marine biology from Duke University, and hopes to pursue a career in science and environmental journalism.

More From Julia Griffin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.