The Last North Atlantic Right Whale Hunt

Last_hunt1In January of 1935, a female right whale and her calf were swimming along the Florida shoreline in the heart of this species’ calving ground. Unfortunately, they were sighted from land by a group of fishermen and a photographer, who then launched a small boat to hunt the calf. They managed to harpoon the calf and shoot both the mother and the calf with a rifle. The hunt lasted for more than six hours, during which time the mother stayed by the calf’s side. Eventually, the one or two-month-old calf succumbed and the mother swam away. The calf was the last right whale intentionally killed in U.S. waters before they became protected later that year.

For years, the whereabouts of the mother remained unknown. Then, 24 years later, Drs. Bill Watkins and Bill Schevill from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took some 16 mm movie footage of her swimming in Cape Cod Bay among a group of right whales. Another two decades were to pass before she was re-sighted, this time off of Nantucket, Massachusetts. There, she was seen “gyrating” for more than an hour in shallow waters, and the field notes speculate that she might be in labor (an unexpected scenario as most right whales give birth off the coast of Florida and Georgia where she had calved in 1935).

After her 1980 sighting, other researchers began studying right whales, and sightings of this whale increased. Over seven days in October of 1985, she was seen in Cape Cod Bay and Jeffreys Ledge (east of New Hampshire) accompanied by a young right whale. Initially researchers thought her companion must be her calf, but they later discovered that this whale had been born the year before to another female. Apparently loyal to the waters off Massachusetts, this aging whale was seen again in 1992 in Cape Cod Bay. Then finally, 60 years after her first sighting, she was seen swimming near George’s Bank in the Gulf of Maine in 1995 with a deep wound in her head from a recent ship strike. She was the oldest known right whale, and she has not been seen since.

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