I learned the sailor's mnemonic Red Right Returning while threading the channel markers in the Cape Cod Canal (bonus points to those of you who got the related nautical pun in the title of this post). A few days ago, a North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis glacialis) cruised the entire 14-mile length of the Canal from East to West and it didn't matter which side of the green and red bouys it passed because it had the whole place to itself. The Army Corps of Engineers got the alert that this 35' whale was heading toward the Sagamore entrace from cape Cod Bay after spending a week in the vicinity and promptly closed the canal to boat traffic until it exited the other side into Buzzard's Bay a couple of hours later. All this fuss is warranted, not only because of the navigational hazard posed by the whale but the hazzard navigation poses to this endangered species, one of less than 400 of its kind that remain on Earth.
I have never seen a Northern Right Whale, that twin-spouted wonder of whalemen that yielded the finest oil, an abundance of baleen and accomodatingly floated when killed. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Massachusetts Law requires boats to avoid coming closer than 500 yards to these Whales, though they are still struck and killed by shipping. According to The Boston Globe, starting today:
"A new federal rule requires ships 65 feet or larger to slow down to 11.5 miles per hour, or 10 knots, near East Coast ports when whales could be nearby. The lumbering, giant whales feed close to the sea surface and are at great risk of being struck by ships – especially because many shipping lanes slice across their migration routes. Whales are just now beginning their seasonal migration from New England waters to their calving grounds off Florida and Georgia."
It was one of these Right Whales, possibly a male although researchers were unable to determine its gender, that made its way through the Cape Cod Canal last Wednesday, December 3rd. I wish I could have been out on Stony Point Dike to take in the scene. I have vivid memories from 1971 - when I was a very little boy of 3 - of another whale in the canal: a vagrant beluga from far Labrador.
I've seen orca in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and south Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins leaping off the Strand at Swakopmund. I've known countless harbor porpoise, pilotfish, minke, humpback and fin whales from the Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank. But the Northern Right Whale remains barely a rumor in this familiar seascape, even though 70-100 of them were estimated to be feeding off Cape Cod last summer. I am very glad that they return, and if as apparently is the case every seven years or so one of them gets the itch to take a shortcut through the canal, it seems the least we can do to step aside and cheer it on.