Shy giant’s journey back from the brink of extinction has received less attention than its charismatic cetacean cousin
It was a memorable finale to a day out on the Atlantic: a four-metre whale calf gliding past the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Their incredible luck, however, would be made clear hours later, as researchers around the world clamoured for more details after seeing the 47-second video of the encounter online.
The divers had unwittingly stumbled across a North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered whales. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the recently born calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles away from the species’ usual haunts along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.
“When I realised what it was, my hair stood up on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And all of a sudden this newborn calf appears in El Hierro.”
More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any sign of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling wiped out all traces of the species from European waters.
A handful of sightings in European waters over the years had been linked to whales with a penchant for transatlantic journeys. But Aguilar was tantalised by another – albeit more unlikely – possibility. “It could suggest that the species could be starting to recolonise the north Atlantic on the European and African side.”
The sighting was a bright moment for scientists tracking a species that has long been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since 2017, records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or seriously injured – a devastating blow to a species that has dwindled to fewer than 400 members.
Most of these incidents have been linked to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales turned up snarled in fishing lines, nursing deep wounds from ship strikes or reeling from ocean noise, fear began to set in that the species would be the first great whale to become extinct in modern times.
It was an unnerving turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers – right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas and float when killed – the species was the first whale to be protected by law, in 1935.