NEFSC home » Newsroom »
November 7, 2018
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

The Story Behind the Right Whale Study

Scientists United by a Search for Answers

When you read or hear about a research paper co-authored by scientists from a number of countries, you wonder how they came to work on the project. For Peter Corkeron, it was years in the making.

“In 1991, when I first worked on Southern right whales at the Head of the Bight in Australia, there were 18 calves born. That same year, there were 17 North Atlantic right whale calves born,” Corkeron said. “This year (2018), while we had no births in the North Atlantic, there were around 100 calves born at and around the Head of the Bight, and in fact the calving there has now spilled over into nearby Fowlers Bay.”

While Corkeron says that one comparison is anecdotal, he knew that there were at least four populations of Southern right whales that were increasing rapidly, which is quite different from North Atlantic right whales. “I knew what a healthy right whale looked like, and I wasn't seeing them here.”

Corkeron, who received the first Ph.D. awarded in Australia on the biology of living cetaceans, has studied large whales and marine mammals around the world, from Australia and the Southern Ocean to Norway and the Arctic, Oman in the Middle East, and now in the Northwest Atlantic. Before he began working at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in 2011, he visited colleagues at the New England Aquarium and talked with them about the health assessments for North Atlantic right whales.

“They showed me photo after photo and lots of data on individual animals, but almost all of the animals were scarred, and all looked to me to be in rather poor condition. I asked where the good whales were, and they didn’t have any,” Corkeron recalled. “I have seen right whales in good condition. If you have that experience, as some of the paper co-authors have as well, you can bring that knowledge to other populations and start asking different questions.”

Asking the right question

More than a decade ago, longtime whale researcher Peter Best from South Africa gave a talk at an international meeting, making the comparison between the South African population of Southern right whales and the North Atlantic right whales.

“He showed without a doubt that South African right whales were increasing at about 6-7% per year, and ran a population projection model for right whales to show how that's possible. He finished the talk by suggesting that the question wasn't why Southern right whales were increasing so rapidly, but why North Atlantic right whales weren’t. That question stuck with me all these years, and in this paper we set out to answer it.”

For Corkeron, that quest began in mid-2016. He began emailing friends and colleagues in Australia, South Africa, and South America to start to pull the study together. A core group agreed to participate and suggested others who could contribute. All shared their data freely.

“Everyone was extremely helpful and keen to collaborate. We've never actually all been in the same place, or on a phone call all together, to produce this study. It was done entirely by email. I saw with this analysis that we had a chance to pull back and ask a bigger-picture question that might help inform us on the background of why we've ended up in the situation that we're in now.”

Value of Surveys

But the process was bittersweet. Peter Best, who started the South African right whale calf surveys in 1969, died in 2015. John Bannister, who began the Australian surveys of Southern right whales along much of the southern coast in 1976, died while the manuscript was in review. Both are co-authors of the paper.

“I knew them both, John better than Peter,” Corkeron said, "and their deaths are a great loss. This study demonstrates the enormous value of their perseverance in starting and then maintaining those surveys. Without that data we could not begin to understand the big picture. The same is true of the Argentinian surveys, started in 1970 and overseen by co-author Vicky Rowntree and her colleagues.”

Science, after all, is done by people, and each person brings their experiences and perspectives to bear on a research question. “Sometimes you don't need a major workshop to get some important science done. You just need scientists who can think about the questions that need answering, and a group who are keen to collaborate. The paper is proof of that.”