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Northern Right Whales Fight for Survival

Stormy Mayo, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, sights a northern right whale on the <i>Shearwater</i> in Cape Cod Bay.
Carlos Gomez, NPR /
Stormy Mayo, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, sights a northern right whale on the Shearwater in Cape Cod Bay.

Every spring, the critically endangered northern right whale migrates north along the Atlantic coast. It's estimated that only 300 of these giant whales remain in the Atlantic Ocean, and they must pass through many obstacles -- mainly shipping lanes and fishermen's nets -- to reach their seasonal feeding grounds. And every year, a few more whales are killed.

Right whales got their name because they were the "right" whales to hunt -- they're big, slow and float after they are harpooned and killed. Even though commerical hunting ended nearly 100 years ago, northern right whales haven't rebounded the way some other whale species have.

In recent years, researchers discovered additional dangers to the northern right whales that may lead to the extinction of the species (Eubalaena glacialis glacialis). In the latest report for the NPR/National Geographic co-production Radio Expeditions, John Nielsen takes a trip out to sea with Stormy Mayo, senior scientist of Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, to track the elusive mammal. Aboard the research vessel Shearwater in Cape Cod Bay, Nielsen and Mayo observe northern right whales as they feed and nurse their young.

Nielsen also meets with Christopher Clark, director of Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who has placed underwater microphones along the Atlantic Coast to chart levels of noise below the waves. Clark says he is amazed at the level of noise that pollutes the waters -- and he believes the noise can be another serious obstacle for the migrating whales.

Broadcast segment produced by NPR's Jessica Goldstein

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.