On the brink, on the rebound
They dive 600 feet, brushing their heads along the seafloor with raised, wartlike patches of skin, sometimes swimming upside down, big as sunken galleons, hot-blooded and holding their breath in cold and utter darkness while the greatest tides on Earth surge by. Then they open their cavernous maws to let the currents sweep food straight in. This is one way North Atlantic right whales feed in the Bay of Fundy between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Or so the experts suspect, having watched the 40- to 80-ton animals surface with mud on their crowns. Mind you, they say, that could result from another activity—one nobody can imagine yet.
Science calls these animals Eubalaena glacialis, "good, or true, whale of the ice." Heavy irony is embedded in the common name, right whale, given by whalers who declared them the right whales to kill. Favoring shallow coastal waters, they passed close to ports, swam slowly, and often lingered on the surface. Such traits made them easy to harpoon, and they tended to conveniently float after they died, thanks to their exceptionally thick blubber layer, which whalers rendered into oil. The first of the great whales to be hunted commercially, E. glacialis lit the lamps of the Old World from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. By the 16th century Europeans had exhausted the eastern North Atlantic population and turned to North America's coast. There whalers set up stations in Labrador and took 25,000 to 40,000 related bowhead whales along with an unknown number of rights (records seldom distinguished between these two similar looking titans).
By the time New Englanders got into the right-whale-killing business, they were chasing leftovers. The Yankees hunted down another 5,000 or so, partly because whales became even more prized for their baleen than for oil. Hundreds of strips of this tough yet flexible material, each six to nine feet long and finely fringed, drape from the upper jaw. They form a colossal sieve that allows the giants to strain tiny crustaceans from the water for food—a billion flea-size copepods a day to supply the minimum 400,000 calories an adult whale needs (the ratio of a whale's body mass to its prey's is 50 billion to one). Society, however, thought baleen was best used for corset stays, stiffeners in fashionable gowns, umbrella ribs, and (consider: "I'm going to whale on you!") horsewhips.