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An animal bigger than the dinosaurs may be going extinct. The northern right whale got its name from the fact that it was deemed by whalers to be `the right whale' to kill. There could be as few as 1,200 in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The biggest short-term dangers to the northern right whales in the Atlantic are ships that run them over and nets that entangle them. Pollution in coastal waters is also a threat. On the latest NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's John Nielsen travels with researchers studying these whales in the Atlantic.

(Soundbite of whales)

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Blimp-sized whales with jet-black flukes glide back and forth along the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean every year at about this time, looking for food and singing out to others of their species.

(Soundbite of whales)

NIELSEN: The best of the feeding grounds are found up north, in places like Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts. But getting to this bay is not an easy thing to do if you're a whale that lives near densely settled coastlines.

Christopher Clark, the director of bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a northern right whale expert, says the first big problem is the fishing gear near the migration routes.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CLARK (Cornell University): If you go up to the Cape, all the way from, you know, Rhode Island all the way up to Maine, and you look at hundreds of thousands of lobster pots and hundreds of thousands of miles of line in the water, it's a wonder that anything survives.

NIELSEN: Then there are the giant metal tanker ships that lumber in and out of Eastern harbors. Imagine having to cross a thousand-lane freeway just to get your lunch, Clark says. That's what the right whales have to do to reach the feeding grounds.

Mr. CLARK: They're running north-south on their migratory routes. The traffic is going east-west. And unlike deer, we can't put fences on the sides of these roads. These ships and these whales are colliding, and they don't give birth often enough to sustain this.

NIELSEN: Ships and nets have killed at least six right whales since last fall. Four of these whales were pregnant. One had given birth to six calves. But in March, the songs of the surviving whales started bouncing into the feeding grounds at Cape Cod Bay and then into underwater microphones--hydrophones--maintained by Chris Clark.

(Soundbite of whales)

NIELSEN: Clark heard mother whales with calves in tow and whales that traveled on their own. By the time the whales themselves arrived in the bay, a research plane was up and tracking them.

(Soundbite of airplane)

PHIL (Research Plane Pilot): Shearwater Skymaster.

Mr. CHARLES "STORMY" MAYO (Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies): Yeah, Phil, we'll tell you what we had; tell us what you got.

NIELSEN: We're below that circling plane on the deck of a 40-foot research boat several miles west of Provincetown in Cape Cod Bay. The man in charge of this boat, a senior scientist with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, talked to the pilot of the spotting plane while staring at a long, slick trail across the surface of the choppy water. That's where the whale is, he says, just beneath the surface.

Mr. MAYO: Big fluke prints, slow-moving. He's got his mouth open. Probably feeding, you know, oh, three, four, maybe five meters down. But you see how big the strokes are.

NIELSEN: Charles "Stormy" Mayo is a wiry, weathered man who's been saving right whales for 30 years now. He's best known for chasing right whales down in small orange dinghies and then cutting fishing lines off their backs. But he also spends a lot of time studying the beds of microscopic plankton right whales eat. Mayo says it stuns him that a thing so big could eat a thing so small.

Mr. MAYO: About a third of their body is head, after all. At least one general understanding in our field is that they evolved this large head in part to carry this large mouth so they can filter this unbelievably tiny food. What a curious mix of scales it really is.

NIELSEN: Mayo's proved that northern right whales won't open their mouths when plankton beds get too thin or too scattered. He suspects that in this bay that's happening more often. He wonders whether there's a link to all of the pollutants washing off the land.

Mr. MAYO: People love whales, and yet in the midst of all that, I don't think it's clear that--how important, for instance, someone flushing a toilet on Cape Cod is to the future of right whales. It isn't clear to me, either. I mean, we can't put numbers on it, but I can assure you that all of that has its effect.

NIELSEN: He worries that there's a point of no return ahead.

Mr. MAYO: At lot of our work is really aimed at just that. Is this a habitat where the whales are going to be? Are they going to stick around here or are they going to look at it and say, `Not enough food and we're leaving.' Hope to slow her down.

See, he's coming back down the same line.

(Soundbite of whale spouting)

NIELSEN: The whale that has been mowing through the plankton bed in front of us has just come up for air. First, we see the line of a long, black, bony forehead with white splotches all over it. Then, we see a huge back.

(Soundbite of whale spouting)

NIELSEN: The whale blasts V-shaped spray from its twin blowholes, then it puts its head down, raises its 20-foot fluke above the water and vanishes without a trace. Not even a fluke mark can be seen.

Mr. MAYO: We've got other whales around here. I think we've got to find something else.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

NIELSEN: The boat heads off towards another group of whales on the far side of the bay. On the way, Mayo talks about the race to uncover hidden threats to this species. One group of researchers is studying right whale DNA for evidence of inbreeding. Other groups are testing the effects of a huge range of pollutants. Drawing these connections is hard enough when you're working with land-based animals, he says. Whales, especially right whales, it's a million times harder.

Mr. MAYO: Even for those of us who study it, we don't know what right whales really do or where they go or what they think. We can only just guess the edges of it.

NIELSEN: We pass a big buoy in the middle of the bay, part of a new network of whale-tracking devices laid out by Chris Clark of Cornell University. Beneath these buoys are recording devices that he built to pick up whale calls and other underwater noises. These sounds get beamed up to satellites and then to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where Clark can call them up on the computer in his office.

(Soundbite of whales)

Mr. CLARK: Now these are really--that's up close and personal. You are now--this is an animal that's swimming right overhead.

(Soundbite of whales; ocean noises)

NIELSEN: Clark also records the sounds that right whales have to listen to as they swim up and down the Atlantic Coast--boat engines, fish-finders, shoreline construction noises. He says those sounds are a hundred times louder than they were at the end of World War II. For whales that use sound like we use vision, this change must be awful.

Mr. CLARK: It's basically creating this pollution that's blocking their acoustic visibility, so suddenly, I can't hear you 50 miles away. On a good day, I might be able to hear you 10 or 15 miles away. And this is what's happening day after day after day after day.

NIELSEN: Chris Clark doesn't know how bad this problem is yet. He says the need to find out more is urgent.

Mr. CLARK: You can have massive impact as opposed to one alone. So now we've got habitat fragmentation, we've got noise pollution, we've got toxic loads. I mean, what else could we do to them? We're not actually going out and sticking them with a piece of steel anymore. We're just ruining their lives. Death by a thousand cuts, yeah.

(Soundbite of whales)

NIELSEN: Sometimes he sits for hours with the lights out in his office at the lab, listening to northern right whales sing in Cape Cod Bay. When he goes to sleep, he says the whales sometimes come with him.

Mr. CLARK: I've had dreams where I've been--had a right whale on my lap, you know, and I'm sitting here talking to it and trying to--`OK, now, last week when I saw you, and you were doing this, what were you thinking? What were you trying to do?'

NIELSEN: Clark says the dream whales sing to him. His fear is that someday, they will stop.

For Radio Expeditions, this is John Nielsen, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Photos are at npr.org.

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