Whale rescue: Amazing attempt to save ‘Queen of the Whales’ | Nature | NewsApril 16, 2018
Known as Kleenex, the 50-foot whale is one of the most successful breeding females of her species which is plunging fast towards extinction with only 433 individuals left.
Over the years, Kleenex has given birth to eight calves as well as being grandmother to a further nine. She also has six great-grandchildren.
With not a single calf born during the recent right whale winter breeding season, conservationists are fearful that the species is on the brink of oblivion.
Every fertile female is priceless for keeping the right whales’ bloodline buoyant, an imperative that spurred rescuers to incredible lengths over recent days to stave Kleenex, who is at least 40 years old.
For the past three years there have been reports of Kleenex being heavily wrapped by thick rope around her upper jaw and over her rostrum, or blow hole.
At the weekend, a spotter plane involved in monitoring the right whales as they migrate along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States spotted Kleenex in a poor state.
The Marine Entanglement Response Team from the the Centre of Coastal Studies, based in based in Provincetown on the extreme tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, went to the rescue but were immediately confronted with difficulties to disentangle Kleenex.
“There was no trailing line, so the usual technique of attaching buoys to the entanglement to slow the whale and keep it at the surface could not be utilised,” said the CCS in a statement.
“Instead, responders used a cutting arrow fired from the deck of the rescue boat to damage the rope. The now-weakened line should deteriorate and be shed naturally over time.”
Kleenex has not been spotted since the ropes were damaged but researchers are continuing to monitor the seas and are ready to “conduct further responses if necessary”.
Up to 17 northern right whales died last year in what has been described as a catastrophe for the species. Fisheries officials spent the summer braving appalling sea conditions off the Canadian coast gathering evidence of the fatalities, with fears that boat strikes and net entanglements were to blame.
Canada later closed its snow crab fishing grounds to protect the whales from fishing gear.
The parlous state of northern right whales is the latest chapter in the species’ decline. It was once the favourite target of 19th Century whalers who coined its name because it was the “right whale” to kill.
Keeping Kleenex – her official name is #1142 – safe is essential for protecting the species, say experts.
Scott Landry, director of the Marine Entanglement Response team, said: “This is exactly the individual we are desperate to help. With only about 433 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, the loss of one breeding female and her future calves may have a devastating effect on the survival of the population.
“This response would not have been possible without the support of the Northeastern Fisheries Science Centre’s right whale aerial surveillance team.
“They spotted the whale during a routine survey and stayed on scene until we arrived. The whale was feeding well below the surface and from our perspective on the boat it was invisible for 90 per cent of the time. Thankfully, the survey plane was able to track the whale’s movements and let us know when and where she was about to surface.”