Do the right thing. 

It is a powerful film by Spike Lee, and a plea for all of us to be the best we can be. It might also be a wail for the whales. The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown recently issued a press release with a reminder and request for mariners to slow down for right whale protection efforts. 

The population of right whales is so small that there aren’t enough of them to each have their own day of the year. With only 340 individual right whales left on the planet, this species is considered critically endangered. 

This was not always so. By the 1890s, these whales were hunted to near extinction after the heydays of the commercial whaling industry.  Their name, in fact, alludes to the belief that they were the “right” whale to hunt because they are found close to shore, move slowly and float when killed, though this rendering of history is disputed in a very interesting article from the Nantucket Historical Association.   

Right whales were first protected in 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, then listed as endangered in 1970. Their numbers remain low for many reasons, one of which is their low reproductive rate.  

Center for Coastal Studies observers provide a dire calf count. Over the last five years, they have seen 0, 7, 10 and 18 calves in the years 2018 to 2021, respectively. And since 2017, there have been 34 right whale mortalities and 16 injuries from boat strikes and entanglements. 

The few remaining whales live among us and they practice the reverse of many of our tendencies to spend summers in the north and winters down south. Right whales, by contrast, congregate on Cape Cod and the Massachusetts bays and their surrounding waters annually from January through May. Whale season is upon us.

These massive mammals arrived early this year — around mid-December — and to date 29 individual whales have been seen by CCS researchers. By the end of the season, it quite possible almost all of the remaining right whales might also visit our area. 

Last year, 273 individuals, or 80 per cent of the population, was observed by CCS scientists. They come to our area to feed on the plankton-rich waters that flow through their massive baleen-filled mouths. This mouth, along with the animal’s head, comprises one-third of the animal’s length, and its baleen plate is up to eight feet long. 

Their slow movement and cryptic coloring, which allows them to blend into their environment when feeding and frolicking at the surface, puts them in peril. The CCS reminds mariners to follow seasonal speed limits and protocols for keeping the whales safe when in areas known to be home to these bulky beasts. And if you are lucky enough to spot a right whale, give it space: the law allows you to approach no closer than 500 yards (1,500 feet). This is how you do the right thing for the right whale.

Those who remember the Spike Lee movie know it ended in tragedy. Right whales may become extinct in our lifetime and that, too, would be heartbreaking.  

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.