As the 20th century began, the number of whales left in this species was possibly in the low dozens. Commercial harpooning wasn't banned until 1935. Their recovery since then might be compared to that of a human victim of a vicious assault: painfully slow progress, offset by relapses, with the ultimate outcome very uncertain.
About 350 to 400 North Atlantic right whales exist today. The survivors migrate along North America's East Coast between feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and wintering sites farther south—roughly 1,400 miles one way for pregnant females that journey to traditional calving areas off Georgia and Florida. They travel through an intensely urban stretch of ocean.
A research team from Boston's New England Aquarium spends the summer stationed in Lubec, Maine, studying the whales that gather to feed and socialize in the Bay of Fundy and nearby Roseway Basin, off Nova Scotia's southern tip. The scientists, who have built an archive of around 390,000 photographs, can recognize nearly every whale in the population by its unique callosity pattern (those wartlike patches on their heads), along with scars and other irregularities, and, increasingly, DNA samples.
One of their favorites is #2223, first seen in these waters in 1992. It was a baby, and so fond of cavorting around boats that they named it Calvin after the mischief-loving cartoon kid. That same year a fisherman reported a calf circling its dying mother, and when the team recovered the carcass of the female, they identified her as #1223—Delilah, Calvin's mom. Her corpse revealed tissues crushed by a powerful collision, probably with one of the cargo carriers plying the shipping channel that used to run straight through the bay's center, where the whales concentrate. The eight-month-old calf 's prospects looked grim, for it should have been nursing Delilah's rich, warm milk for several more months.
In July 1993 researchers poring over fresh photos from the bay found images that looked like a match for Calvin's baby pictures. Yes! The orphan had somehow made it alone. DNA from a skin sample taken in 1994 showed that curious, hardy Calvin was in fact a girl whale. The following year brought the first report of her entering a surface-active group, or SAG, in which both sexes mingle with splashing, shoving, rolling, stroking signs of courtship. Though she wouldn't mature sexually until about ten years of age, subadults her age appear drawn to the excitement of SAGs and get to practice behavior that may soon influence their breeding success. Fertile adult females are the most valuable segment of the population. They number fewer than a hundred. Calvin seemed on the verge of adding one more to their ranks.