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Starboard’s story: The life and death of a right whale

An adult, female right whale named Starboard was familiar to researchers and had just reached reproductive age. ‘It’s pretty devastating from a professional and personal viewpoint,’ said Amy James, a right-whale researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.

Chris Slay/Coastwise Consulting

She was born a dozen winters ago in the warm waters of the southeast United States, traditional calving grounds for the North Atlantic right whales. Researchers eventually named her Starboard and in the ensuing years observed her migrating like clockwork between Florida, New England and the Bay of Fundy.

This summer, however, Starboard joined the increasing numbers of right whales who have edged further north into the Gulf of St Lawrence, a move that has been particularly lethal, with 12 of them dying, either after colliding with ships or getting caught in fishing lines.

Among them was Starboard. A more detailed account of her life and final days emerged this week with the release of her necropsy report.

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A 13-metre-long adult female, she was familiar to researchers and had just reached reproductive age. "It's pretty devastating from a professional and personal viewpoint," said Amy James, a right-whale researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.

"She was a well-known whale, she was easily recognizable. We were expecting her to start calving at any time."

Starboard came from a large family, said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

Her grandmother, Baldy, lived more than 40 years and had nine calves. Starboard's mother, named Trilogy, had four calves. One of Starboard's older sisters, Boomerang, had three calves.

Initially known only as No. 3603, Starboard was first sighted by humans on Dec. 27, 2005, off the shores of Florida.

For the first nine months of her life, until she weaned, 3603 stayed with Trilogy, who took her on her northbound migration toward New England and Canada.

In the ensuing years, even after she parted ways with her mother, 3603 moved along the same patterns.

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She wintered in the waters off Florida, Georgia or South Carolina. Then in the spring, she would be in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts Bay or near Nantucket Island. Late summer and early fall would find her in the Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Mr. Hamilton said 2009 was a prolific year for 3603's family. Her grandmother, Baldy, gave birth to her eighth calf. Her mother, Trilogy, gave birth to a fourth calf, while 3603's older sister, Boomerang, had her second calf.

The following year, 3603 was among 15 right whales who were given names by researchers because they were seen on a regular basis or had unique markings. The name Starboard was picked because 3603 was missing part of her right-side tail fin.

Starboard's mother got entangled in September of 2010 and was "in poor condition" off the coast of Massachusetts, according to a U.S. observation report. Trilogy was never seen again after that.

In August of 2014, Starboard was observed in the Roseway Basin, just outside the Bay of Fundy. Then she went out of sight for three years.

This summer, she joined more than 100 right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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Mr. Hamilton said scientists are still trying to grasp why the whales seem to have shifted their fall feeding grounds to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Tests are being conducted to see if they are still eating the same species of zooplankton or whether they are now favouring a fauna indigenous to the gulf.

The change placed the right whales in the midst of busy shipping lanes and commercial snow-crab fishing traps.

Starboard was last seen alive this spring, off the coast of Massachusetts, on April 23, south of the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Two months later, on June 21, her body, tangled in multiple lines and buoys, was spotted in the Gulf of St Lawrence by a Fisheries and Oceans Canada surveillance aircraft.

The plane crew members saw weighted fishing lines caught in her mouth and twisted around her right flipper, pulling tightly in opposite directions.

Starboard's carcass drifted until June 29, when the Canadian Coast Guard patrol vessel A. LeBlanc towed her to a beach in Prince Edward Island.

Her body was pulled onto the grassy, red-sanded shore and experts performed a necropsy, removing her right flipper to examine its injuries, taking tissue samples, laying out the tangled lines and buoys onto a tarp.

The necropsy found signs that Starboard might have been caught in the fishing gear for days.

Scar tissue had already formed underneath the ropes. The joint of her right flipper had eroded cartilage, presumably because of the strain from the ropes looped around it. She also had thin blubber, suggesting she couldn't feed herself properly because she was entangled.

The fishing lines came from two separate snow-crab traps set in early and mid-June. It was determined that Starboard was caught in one trap between June 12 and 16. Then she got tangled in another trap, sometime between June 16 and 22. She likely died during the second entanglement.

There are fewer than 460 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Mr. Hamilton estimated that the deaths this summer meant the loss of up to 360 potential future right whales.

"Their mortality is outpacing their births," said Charles (Stormy) Mayo, director of the right whale habitat studies research project at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

"So when we lose a whale like Starboard, we're losing the future."

Video: Studying right whale carcasses to discover what’s causing their deaths
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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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