The death of this reproductive female represents a massive loss for the right whale population.
North Atlantic right whale #1281, named “Punctuation” because the small scars on her head looked like dashes and commas, was found floating dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 20, 2019. All right whale deaths hit hard, but this one is particularly devastating to the population—she was a reproductive female—and to the researchers who have studied her for nearly 40 years. First photographed in the Great South Channel in 1981, Punctuation was sighted more than 250 times in habitats up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada.
Punctuation had eight calves, her first in 1986 and her last in 2016, giving her a reproductive span of 30 years. Additionally, two of her calves went on to have calves of their own. Her daughter #1601 gave birth to a female, #2701, in 1997 and her son #1981 fathered a son of his own, #3853, in 2008. For a population in decline and struggling with reproduction over the last few years, the loss of her reproductive success is a tremendous loss to the species.
Like many whales in the population, Punctuation, her calves, and grand-calves have faced numerous challenges. Punctuation bore scars from five separate entanglements and two minor vessel strikes. In 2016, Punctuation’s calf #4681 was struck and killed by a ship. Both daughter #1601 and granddaughter #2701 suffered severe entanglements that lead to the death of #2701 in 2000 and the disappearance of #1601 in 2001. Punctuation’s grandson #3853 was seen in 2011 with deep propeller cuts to his back and is presumed dead.
We realized that this means Punctuation’s lineage is now extinct- her family tree is no longer able to grow. Her family is a tragic representation of the consequence of our species invasion into their world.
Researchers are hopeful that Punctuation’s body can be brought ashore so a necropsy (animal autopsy) can be performed and we can identify her cause of death. Understanding how and why right whales are killed is essential to evaluating and improving management and conservation efforts aimed at saving this species. In the meantime, researchers mourn the loss of yet another important whale in this population and an old friend we’ll dearly miss seeing out on the water.