For three years running, the researchers gauged the young female's blubber thickness with ultrasound. It's a tricky operation. "One whale's reaction jolted the skiff hard enough to send me flying overboard," Amy Knowlton of the research team recalled. Nevertheless, the researchers found Calvin growing pleasingly plump, a prime measure of health. On New Year's Eve of 1999, she was recorded for the first time in the Georgia Bight, an expanse of shallow coastal waters off Georgia and Florida, where right whales give birth.
In summer of 2000 Calvin was once again in the Bay of Fundy, but this time she was snarled in fishing gear. Unbreakable polyblend ropes wrapped round her body, cut into the skin, and trailed in her wake, slowing her down. Then researchers lost sight of the young female.
Two to six right whales are found dead in a typical year, at least half of them killed by ship strikes or entanglement. Additional animals simply disappear. Since more than three-quarters of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from encounters with fishing gear, scientists wonder: How many of those missing are weighed down by ropes, nets, or crab and lobster pots for months or even years, the fat reserves that help keep them buoyant dwindling as they starve, fighting harder to reach the surface for each breath, until they finally give in to pain and exhaustion and sink?
Months dragged by. Someone finally spotted Calvin in Cape Cod Bay during her hobbled journey back south. A disentanglement team from nearby Provincetown, Massachusetts, raced for the site and made two attempts to slice away her bindings. They couldn't get them all, but when Calvin was seen during 2001, she had worked free of the remnants.
Three years passed, and Calvin showed up occasionally—but not in her usual summer haunts. Had the trauma sent her into a downward spiral? At the end of December 2004, near the North Carolina coast, she presented herself—with a brand new calf. Seven months later, in 2005, they were in the Bay of Fundy, where Delilah had brought Calvin as an infant.
The corridor traveled by Calvin and the other North Atlantic right whales has grown ever more crowded with fishing activities and busy shipping lanes. Plumes of contaminants flow from river mouths, and the underwater din of ship traffic probably makes it increasingly difficult for the whales to communicate and keep track of one another. Though not as visible as wounds from boat prows and propeller blades or fishing gear webbed around struggling bodies, heavy chemical and noise pollution may take a gradual toll.