By Heather Pettis
While the last few weeks have been consumed with the devastating news of six right whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, our hearts were lifted by the discovery of a very exciting and unusual sighting last week. While four of us were attending a workshop on right whale health in Washington, D.C., we received an email suggesting that there was a recent video posted on social media of a right whale feeding off the coast of FRANCE! We were a bit skeptical at first. It’s not unusual to come across images and videos misidentified as right whales or attributed to incorrect locations.
After a bit of sleuthing and enlisting the assistance of a French translator, we were able to connect with the person who had posted the video and confirm that yes, they had in fact observed a right whale feeding off Penmarch on the northwest coast of France on Friday, June 21. The video quality was excellent and as such, we were able to identify the right whale as Catalog #3845 (Mogul), an 11-year-old male.
Mogul is a whale we know well. Born in 2008 to #1245 (Slalom), Mogul has been sighted in many of the “typical” right whale habitats throughout his life, including the southeast U.S., Cape Cod Bay, Great South Channel, and the Bay of Fundy. However, he threw us all for a bit of a loop when in July 2018 he was sighted by a whale watch boat off the coast of Iceland! With this recent sighting off the coast of France, we initially assumed that Mogul had taken an extended long-distance walkabout. However, we just confirmed that he was seen repeatedly in Cape Cod Bay in March, just three months ago and nearly 3,200 miles away, so this in fact is his second trans-Atlantic walkabout in a year!
While this is the first contemporary sighting of a right whale off the coast of France, Penmarch sits at the northern part of the Bay of Biscay, where the Basque whalers were the first to hunt North Atlantic right whales beginning in the 11th century. Prior to these whaling efforts, North Atlantic right whales existed in large numbers in the eastern North Atlantic, ranging from the northern coast of Spain to Norway, including the Bay of Biscay. However, after several hundreds of years of intense activity, whalers effectively eliminated the eastern population.
There have been a handful of right whale sightings in the eastern North Atlantic over the last few decades, but these are primarily whales from the western stock taking long walkabouts like Mogul. Thankfully, Mogul is safe from whaling, but we do worry about other threats he may face on his journey, including entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strike. We are keeping our fingers crossed for a safe journey for Mogul and look forward with great curiosity to seeing where he is sighted next!