A North Atlantic right whale that made headlines last year for his wanderlust in Iceland has decided to take a more southerly European vacation this year.
Mogul, an 11-year-old male right whale, was spotted June 21 feeding off the coast of Penmarc’h, France, in the Bay of Biscay.
It’s a curious spot for a young right whale to find himself, said Heather Pettis, associate scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.
“It’s certainly unusual,” she said. “It’s not unheard of. We have a handful of sightings of whales off the coast of Iceland, Greenland, Norway — but to our knowledge, we do not have a [modern] record of a whale being sighted off the coast of France.”
Pettis said there’s no way to know for sure why a right whale might find himself travelling so far from the coastal Atlantic waters off North America.
But she said the whale was observed in a video to be skim feeding — a process of swimming through a concentration of prey, usually zooplankton, with the mouth open, filtering water through the baleen.
“These whales are pretty honed in on finding food,” said Pettis. “And so if he was travelling in an area where he was not able to find food it looks like he kept going until he found some.”
“So it seems as though he’s sort of taken to doing these long walkabouts to find new patches of food,” said Pettis.
It doesn’t appear that Mogul plans to become a North American expat. The whale returned from his adventures in Iceland last year and was spotted this past March off the coast of Cape Cod Bay, Mass., before being spotted a few weeks ago about 5,000 kilometres from home.
Pettis said it is interesting that Mogul returned to a site where historically the species has been hunted.
Basque whalers were the first to hunt whales commercially hundreds of years ago, targeting them as the “right whale to hunt,” due to their slow-moving nature, thick blubber layer and tendency to stay near the coast.
By the 19th century, the whales had been hunted nearly to extinction.
“That really thick blubber layer would yield a lot of oil,” Pettis said. “Their baleen, it’s very long and pliable, so it was used sort of how we would use plastics today — buggy whips, corsets — so [a] really, really profitable whale.
“[It was] so easy to get to, easy to kill and very profitable.”
These days, Pettis said right whale sightings outside of Atlantic waters off the Eastern Seaboard are unusual but scientists have observed the whales shifting their distribution in recent years.
For example, the 12 right whales killed in Canadian waters in 2017’s unprecedented mortality event, and the six whales found dead this year, were all found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — not an area where the whales would typically visit.
“I do think the transition of a lot of whales into the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the past couple of years is indicative of a shift in their distribution and suggests that they are seeking out and being successful in seeking out habitats where they can feed appropriately,” said Pettis.
“I don’t think that we’re going to find large numbers of whales off the coast of France anytime soon but it shows us that these whales are really well adapted to finding food.”
Six North Atlantic right whales have died in eastern Canadian waters since early June this year and one was spotted alive but entangled in fishing gear last week.
No deaths were recorded last year in Canadian waters, but 12 right whales were found dead in 2017, mainly from ship strikes and entanglements.
Of the whales found dead so far this year, four were able to be towed to shore for necropsy. Scientists determined three of them likely died after collisions with ships but there was no obvious cause of death for the other.
Last week Transport Canada implemented interim speed restrictions in the Gulf to try to protect the endangered whales. Speed has been limited to 10 knots for vessels 20 metres or longer going through two designated shipping lanes north and south of Anticosti Island.
A recent federal scientific review said measures taken to protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from being struck by ships and getting caught in fishing gear may not be enough.
Pettis said since whales can shift their distribution quickly, taking a broader approach may be needed.
“We tend to draw boxes around areas where we say, ‘OK, right whales are found here so let’s put management efforts there,”‘ said Pettis.
“But we know that right whales don’t stay in these boxes and they can shift their distribution very quickly and in large numbers and that’s what we’ve seen over the last few years.”
Though any loss of a right whale is devastating to the small population, Pettis said she’s encouraged by the public being engaged in the conservation of the species and reporting their right whale sightings to scientists.