Banner Photo Credit: Credit: Sheila McKenney, Associated Scientists of Woods Hole
Marineland Right Whale Project.

His brief life history illustrates the new and old challenges faced by endangered whales.

Researchers at the New England Aquarium have identified the dead right whale found in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence as a 9-year-old male named Wolverine. He was so named for a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name.

Amy Knowlton, a senior right whale scientist with the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, stated, “Wolverine endeared himself to the right whale research community as he was seen many times in all the main habitats from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and had endured both a vessel strike and three entanglements. The right whale community is saddened by the loss of Wolverine, especially at such a young age.”

North Atlantic right whale Wolverine
(Credit: Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project, no permit # needed as shot from land) Wolverine, a male North Atlantic right whale pictured here in a 2011 photograph, was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 4, 2019. Wolverine was so named for a series of three propeller cuts on his tail stock that reminded researchers of the three blades on the hand of the Marvel comic book character of the same name.

At nine years, Wolverine was considered a young adult in the small North Atlantic right whale world of slightly more than 400 such animals on the planet.

A positive identification was made by New England Aquarium researchers based on Wolverine’s unique white belly pattern.

Wolverine was born in 2010 and first sighted off the northeast coast of Florida with his mother, an unnamed whale listed as #3123 in the Aquarium’s right whale catalog that documents every sighting of each individual in the population. Right whales migrate south to the Florida-Georgia border from New England and Canadian Maritime waters in the early winter to give birth and nurse their calves for about three months before returning north in the spring.

That year, Wolverine and his mother were last seen off the Georgia coast on March 21 and were then spotted a month later in late April nearly 1,000 miles north in waters off the southern New England coast.

Later in the spring, they were spotted multiple times in the Great South Channel, a right whale feeding habitat located about 60 miles east of Cape Cod. Wolverine’s mother would have still been exclusively nursing him, but would have been vigorously feeding on a type of zooplankton called copepods, which are found in abundance in the Great South Channel in the spring. Over the previous three months off the southeastern states, she would have lost thousands of pounds while nursing Wolverine as there would have been little food on which for her to efficiently forage. That spring, the mother-son pair was not sighted by whale researchers in Cape Cod Bay, which is a major feeding habitat in April and May for a large portion of the right whale population. They may have frequented those waters and not been seen as Wolverine would become a regular in Cape Cod Bay over the remainder of his life.

At still less than a year old, Wolverine and his mother were seen several times in the Bay of Fundy in October and November. Located between Maine and New Brunswick and renowned for among the highest tides in the world, the Bay of Fundy for decades had been the principal late summer feeding habitat for right whales. At this age, Wolverine’s mother would have begun to wean him, and he had probably begun imitating his mother’s feeding behaviors over the summer and autumn.

Two months later, Wolverine was spotted in Florida no longer with his mother, and already with the three propellor scars that became the basis for his name. He apparently had made the 1,000-mile migration as a 1-year-old. This migration is primarily done by pregnant females and occasionally by juveniles of both sexes. Wolverine was never spotted in Florida or Georgia waters again. In April of his first year on his own, he was spotted skim feeding in Cape Cod Bay. In June, he was later spotted just to the north in Massachusetts Bay in the same area as a humpback whale.

As a 3-year-old, Wolverine was not seen by whale researchers anywhere, which is not an uncommon event. Also in 2013, Wolverine’s mother was seen for the last time after a severe gear entanglement.

In his fourth year, he was again observed doing his spring fattening in Cape Cod Bay.

In April of his fifth year, he was again seen in Massachusetts Bay. About 10 days later, New England Aquarium researchers collected the water vapor from blow samples from Wolverine when he was exhaling at the surface. The purpose of this unusual, noninvasive technique was to analyze hormone levels and gain more insight into each animal’s health.

Wolverine the Right whale. Photo Credit: Corey Accardo, Center for Coastal Studies taken under NOAA federal permit #14603.

In Wolverine’s first five years, he survived three entanglements – two considered minor and one moderate.

In his sixth year, Wolverine again was only seen in Cape Cod Bay, but a major change for him and the entire species occurred in 2017. For the first time, he was spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a massive body of water north of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia and east of Quebec. The Gulf of St. Lawrence previously only had a few sightings of right whales in an average year, but that had begun to change.

For decades, the Bay of Fundy to the south of the Maritime provinces had been the primary mid- to late-summer feeding destination for a large portion of the right whale population, but since just after Wolverine’s birth, Fundy waters were largely bereft of copepods, the fatty, rice-sized zooplankton that is the foundation of the right whale diet as both surface and deep water temperatures have been rising by alarming rates. Right whales would still show up, but left quickly in search of other feeding locations. Wolverine and hundreds of other right whales eventually found copepod aggregations hundreds of miles to the north in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, regulations concerning ship traffic and fishing effort, which were in place for the waters south of the Canada’s Maritime Provinces and in New England, were not in place in this emerging habitat. The result was a right whale calamity as a dozen right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in summer 2017, and five more died in U.S. waters. Nearly 4% of the right whale population died in the matter of a few months.

Luckily, Wolverine survived that fateful summer. He was sighted there many times from late June to early November in 2017.

In 2018, he was photographed at least three times in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in August. By last summer, Canadian officials had implemented many new regulations to better protect right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there were no known deaths.

Wolverine arrived early in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year, and his body was discovered by a NOAA aerial flight on June 4. Canadian officials are working on plans to possibly tow and necropsy his carcass to possibly determine the cause of death.

With a population estimated at 411, the endangered North Atlantic right whale has historically struggled due to lethal vessel strikes and entanglements throughout their range, but now the effects of climate change also put these whales further at risk.

Coordinated efforts in both Canada and the U.S. are being taken in hopes of reducing these risks.