Karl-Otto Jacobsen / Division of Arctic Ecology–Norway

(Catalog No. 1133 )
Porter is a big adult male that we have been following for years. He has been seen every year or two since his first sighting in 1981. He has a very distinctive scar on his left shoulder that makes him easy to recognize. In 1999, Porter made the longest documented journey of any right whale. In May of that year, he was observed feeding in the waters just east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On September 17, he was seen in the Kvaenangen fjord in Troms county, northern Norway. The straight-line distance between those sightings is more than 5,700 km, or 3,500 miles!

Not only is this an extraordinary distance to swim, but the direction is unexpected as well. Right whale sightings are extremely rare in the eastern North Atlantic; there were less than a dozen sightings during the latter part of the 20th century. Between 1902 and 1967, more than 140 right whales were killed in the eastern North Atlantic, mostly off the Scottish and Irish coast, and it is believed that the few remaining animals do not constitute a self-sustaining population. Furthermore, it is generally believed that the eastern stock of right whales was separate from the western stock. Porter’s little jaunt now makes us wonder whether there was more mixing between the two populations than previously thought.

Porter spent over a month in the northern regions of Norway and then made his way back to North America, where he was sighted the following May in Cape Cod Bay. What prompted his long journey? Had he been there before or was he exploring—a trait that seems to be more common in young males than older ones? And could that unusual scar on his back be the remains of an old harpoon wound from long ago? As is often the case with science, from each answer springs multiple questions.