A Tale of a Right Whale
Suspended at the center of the Sant Ocean Hall is a life-size model of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix. The result of four years of work, and collaboration between exhibit fabricators, whale biologists, sculptors, painters, engineers, and many others, this exhibit is unique and exciting in that it represents a live animal. Phoenix is part of a long tradition of exhibiting whales at the Smithsonian. In 1903, the Museum created the first full-cast of a whale ever displayed.
Phoenix has been tracked in her Atlantic Ocean environment by marine biologists at the New England Aquarium in Boston, ever since her birth off the coast of Georgia in 1987. Phoenix was chosen because so much is known about her and her family (her mother's name is Stumpy). She is the mother of three calves and became a grandmother in 2007. It's estimated that there are fewer than 500 of these whales alive today. Read her story in this slideshow, and learn more about North Atlantic right whales.
Right Whale TailSince 1987, researchers have been tracking Phoenix, one of the last North Atlantic right whales living today. It's estimated that there are fewer than 500 of these whales alive today.
New England Aquarium, Photographer Chris Slay
A Whale Named PhoenixIn the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, she’s #1705. To those who have tracked her since birth in the waters between Canada and Florida, she’s Phoenix. That scientists know her by name tells you how few North Atlantic right whales remain. She’s called Phoenix because, like that mythical bird, she seemed to be “reborn,” surviving a life-threatening entanglement in fishing gear in 1997. She still bears a scar below her right lip from that encounter, which you can see on the model and which scientists use to help identify her in the waters of the Atlantic.
New England Aquarium, Photographer Jessica Taylor
The “Right” Whale to HuntWhy is this species called a “right” whale? For whalers, they were the right whale to hunt. They swim slowly in accessible coastal waters, rest at the surface, and float when killed. They yielded much profitable oil and baleen. They were easy, lucrative prey. But being right for whalers hasn’t been good for them: Phoenix and her kin are among the most endangered whales, even though hunting has been banned for more than 70 years.
Library of Congress
Who’s That Whale?The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog has information on each whale. Photos of whales are snapped from ships and airplanes. The distinct pattern of callosities (rough patches) on their heads as well as scars (such as those caused by fishing lines) distinguish each whale. Snapshots are matched to photos in the catalog to identify the individual. Sighting records are accessible online and provide a diary of each whale.
New England Aquarium
Finding PhoenixNorth Atlantic right whales migrate seasonally between calving grounds and feeding grounds along the eastern coast of the United States. Researchers track them from the air or on ships. Phoenix has been tracked since January of 1987 when she was first spotted as a calf with her mother Stumpy swimming in calving grounds off the coast of Georgia.
Adapted from E. Paul Oberlander, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics; Data from North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium
Beware of Fishing GearThere were fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales in 2006. Yet it has been illegal to hunt them since 1935. Why haven’t populations increased? Traits that made right whales easy to hunt make them vulnerable to ship collisions and fishing gear. Sometimes, as the whales feed, they get entangled in lines attached to gear at the bottom of the ocean. Phoenix badly injured her right lip this way, leaving a scar from that ordeal.
New England Aquarium, Photographer Chris Slay
When Ships StrikeRight whales and ocean-going vessels often cross paths. Phoenix’s mother was killed in a collision with a ship. When whales are sighted in U.S. waters, fishing boats are alerted to pull up gear, and ships are notified to slow down, keep their distance, or leave the area. Still, ship strikes are the leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths today. Pollution, habitat degradation, and declining prey are other factors that may be impacting their numbers.
Regina Campbell-Malone/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Stumpy’s TailTo date Phoenix has raised three calves, including one named Smoke (#2605) who gave birth to a calf in 2007—making Phoenix a grandmother. Phoenix and every other North Atlantic right whale are critical to the species’ survival. The population is so small that scientists cannot reliably forecast future population size. But the future may look brighter. A record-high 39 calves were documented in 2009.
Courtesy of the New England Aquarium
Preparing to Hoist the Right Whale ModelAt nearly 45 feet long, a full-scale model of Phoenix dominates the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It took four years and the work of designers, painters, sculptors, engineers, whale biologists, and exhibit fabricators to create the model that is perfect down to the placement of every hair and scar. Constructing a model this big presented many design challenges never attempted before.