Posted by: coastlinesproject | May 23, 2015

Duxbury Bay Right Whales. A beautiful piece written by our friend D.A. MIttell:

To Gasp In Awe

The presence of black right whales visible from Duxbury beach has people really excited, and “rightly” so. The presence of an estimated 100 of the animals in Cape Cod Bay this month is even more exciting, since that number represents a quarter of the world’s living population of a species that once numbered in the many thousands in all the oceans.
In November 1620, as the Mayflower lay at anchor in Cape Cod Bay before selecting a place to land, passengers could see hundreds of whales “hard by us.” These, it is believed, were black right whales, also known as Sarda.
The beasts weighed 70 tons – a size so protecting that, unlike other whales, it had evolved no protective behaviors. Men bearing harpoons and later grenades were, and would be today, greeted bemusedly. When its young were attacked it always reacted to protect them, it never fled. Advantage to the whaler.
The black right whale feeds on plankton, which it filters through its baleen, a huge bone. It grows to be so large that the many products a single animal could provide were always lucrative; and there were so many of them in coastal waters that early hunters only had to kill as many as they could. Then (unlike some species) this whale’s 20 inches of blubber kept it afloat after death. Another advantage for the whaler willing to take stench in return for dollars.
The extinction of the black right whale probably began with Spanish Basque fishermen hunting them off Newfoundland in the 1400s. His reign ended abruptly with the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Thereafter the slaughter of the right whale would be carried out by men mostly speaking English or French. (Also Norwegian, when a separate population was found in the North Sea.)
The destruction in New England’s waters was such that by 1720 local whalers had to become “pelagic” – hunting in the open sea, far from land. The abundance of animals the Pilgrims had seen in Cape Cod Bay 100 years earlier was no more. The North Atlantic black right whale’s destruction took another 200 years to complete. The last recorded taking was off Amaganset, Long Island, in 1918.
The species had also filled other oceans, where it was also brought to the point of extinction. Today, it is extinct, or close to it, in the South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
That should put the whales we see off Duxbury Beach and in Cape Cod Bay into perspective. A child will gasp in awe at the first sighting of this magnificent beast. Last summer, The Boston Globe reported that the population of North Atlantic black right whales has recently grown by 100 animals, to an estimated 400. Seeing them off Duxbury this spring, and knowing that there are 100 of them within Cape Cod Bay, should be enough to make the child of every age gasp in awe.
For much of the history of the worldwide fate of the black right whale we are indebted to Farley Mowat’s 1984 Sea of Slaughter – a beautifully-written book previously cited in this space.
–D.A. Mittell, Jr.



  1. May we Middleton Stream Teamers use MIttell’s essay properly acknowledged of course for one of our weekly Water Closet pieces? Please go to Middleton Stream Team’s web site to see Water Closet essays. Peace, Pike Messenger


    • I would think so. D.A, write for the Duxbury Clipper.

  2. It’s great that DA Mittell gave this species the recognition it deserves, and I really like the fact that the term black right whale was used. Unfortunately, some of the text is inaccurate. For example, baleen is not ‘a large bone’. Each plate, of which there are approximately 500 in a right whale’s mouth, is made of keratin, not bone.

    Seeing 100 is indeed a fantastic event and one that the author rightly cherises. However, 100 is 20% not 25% of the population of North Atlantic right whales.

    It is odd that the term ‘extinction’ was used. None of the three species of right whales (North Atlantic, North Pacific, Southern) are extinct. Critically endangered yes, but extinct, no. In fact, the article conflates the numbers of the three populations. As stated above, the NARW has a population estimate of approximately 500. The North Pacific right whale has a population that is unknown, but probably lower than the North Atlantic. The Southern right whale numbers in the 6,000-7,000 range. Thus, the second sentence in this story is confusing and inaccurate.

    Again, it’s great that someone thinks enough of this species to write about it. But, if we’re to maximize the opportunity to educate the public about this unusual and rare animal, the facts we share have to be accurate.

    I will end on a positive note. According to the Right Whale Research News, published by the New England Aquarium, seventeen North Atlantic right whale calves were born this past calving season, which runs from November through March.

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