Conservation and Biodiversity
A mother whale’s legacy and a call to protect it
January 31, 2020
Regina Asmutis-Silvia is the Executive Director, North America at Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA.
Researchers first saw her in 1981. She didn’t stand out for her flawless black skin, or the armor on her head, but for the massive white patch on her belly, shaped like the goblet Delilah used to tempt Samson in the Bible. Instead of catalog number 1223, she was Delilah.
At 45 feet long and nearly 40 tons, she still glided effortlessly through the water. Like all North Atlantic right whales, she wore a head of spiky black armor. These patches of roughened tissue on her head carried microscopic armies of cyamids, tiny crustaceans who clean her skin and give her black armor a white covering.
She was majestic — and she was the hope for her species. North Atlantic right whales are an endangered species, and as solo caretakers for calves, females hold the key to the right whales’ survival.
For over a decade, researchers watched Delilah feed, migrate and socialize. They also watched her survive the dangers her species face from ocean noise, passing ships and a labyrinth of fishing lines waiting to entangle her.
Though I can’t be sure, I like to think that sometime, in my 30 years protecting whales in the waters off the East Coast, I crossed paths with Delilah. Either way, I could never have predicted the lasting impact her story had on me or whale conservation.
A mother’s legacy
In 1992, Delilah gave her species its most precious gift: a newborn daughter. Delilah spent more time on the surface to keep her little one safe. The calf could not yet handle the extended dives that right whales use for foraging. Like all nursing mothers, Delilah dropped weight as she used up stored energy to feed her newborn, who drank 40–60 gallons of milk from her each day.
In the summer, she and her 8-month-old daughter traveled to the Canadian Maritimes, where Delilah would teach her to find food. Ideally, sometime before the year’s end, Delilah’s daughter would be on her own. But until then, she would stay by Delilah’s side, nursing and learning from her mother.
In September, Delilah was fatally struck by a passing ship. When she died, her calf was left orphaned. It seemed that the species had lost two key females in one fatal blow.
But against all odds, the orphaned daughter survived. Later, researchers named her Calvin, for her sassy nature, and she continued to defy odds by surviving a near fatal entanglement in fishing gear. Now a mother herself, Calvin is Delilah’s destiny, her legacy and her hope.
Because of this hope, I chose Delilah as a model for an inflatable right whale. Thanks to generous funding from Metabolic studio, Whale and Dolphin Conservation was able to recreate a life-sized Delilahan educational tool. We brought her back to life, complete with callosities, belly goblet, ribs, baleen and bones, enabling us to share Delilah, her story and hope for her species with thousands of people each year.
A call to protect
Delilah continues to influence, inspire and guide me in my work to protect her species. It is for Delilah and her family that I ask for your help.
Fewer than 400 North Atlantic whales remain in the ocean, and the numbers are declining, mostly from accidental vessel strikes and fishing net entanglements. Still, there is hope.
Much of this hope is rooted in science and innovation. By locating emerging habitats and enforcing vessel speed zones in those areas, scientists have reduced strikes. People have also developed modified fishing gear that reduces the risk of entanglements.
These efforts, however, need support. You can be a voice for Delilah, for Calvin and for the remaining right whales by asking your senator to co-sponsor the bipartisan bill SAVE Right Whales Act.
The act allocates 10 years of funding for shipping and fishing industries to develop new and innovative technologies, allowing humans and right whales to share the ocean that we all depend on.
Only you can give right whales a voice. Reach out and ask them to support this important initiative. The whales depend on it.