Phoenix rises again!

Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. are familiar with Phoenix, the North Atlantic right whale. A full-scale 45-foot, 2,300 pound model of her hangs in the center of the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall. The real Phoenix is far less easy to see, but scientists were able to get a rare glimpse of her recently in the Gulf of Maine.

Phoenix was sighted on Dec. 31 in a deep section in the center of the gulf known as Jordan’s Basin, which is a recently discovered wintering ground and a possible mating ground for North Atlantic right whales.

An earlier photo of Phoenix with her calf.

An earlier photo of Phoenix with her calf.

Phoenix, who has been tracked by scientists since her birth in 1987, is a mother and grandmother.  In 1997 she became entangled in fishing gear for two years but managed to eventually escape. She was named for the mythical bird that burned but rose from the ashes. Phoenix has survived a serious entanglement and has “returned” from almost certain doom with only a distinctive lip scar to show for her ordeal.

Photographs taken from ships and airplanes have allowed scientists to follow Phoenix’s progress over time. These photos are kept in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, a database of more than 200,000 right whale images. Scientists can tell Phoenix—whale No. 1705—apart from her peers due to a distinct pattern of callosities—wart-like tissue on the top of her head. Only right whales have these unusual birthmarks, which are often confused for barnacles because of their white color. Other distinctive traits include the right whale’s unmistakable tail—black with a deep notch in the middle and a smooth trailing edge—and its V-shaped blow and absent dorsal fin.

A model of Phoenix is the centerpiece of the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Chip Clark)

A model of Phoenix is the centerpiece of the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Chip Clark)

Though right whales spend nearly 80 percent of their time underwater, researchers also use behavioral characteristics to distinguish right whales from other species. One of the most unusual behaviors is surface skim feeding, when right whales feed at the ocean’s surface with their mouths fully open for hours at a time. On a typical day, Phoenix may eat more than 2,200 pounds of copepods (tiny animal plankton)—128 pounds of which may be consumed in one hour alone. Other unique behaviors include “posturing,” when a whale arches its back to bring both the flukes and tail out of the water simultaneously, and “surface active groups,” when two or more whales are found socializing at the water’s surface.

North Atlantic right whales are baleen whales, belonging to the genus Eubalaena. With a current population of less than 400, the endangered North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest whale species in the world today. They can be found anywhere along the North Atlantic coast between Norway and Florida, where they migrate seasonally to feed and calve.

Right whales began to decline in number during the 19th century due to whaling; they got their name because they were known as the “right” whale to catch at the time. In recent years, they have become particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Today, organizations like the New England Right Whale Consortium are actively engaged in right whale research, conservation and management to ensure the long-term conservation and recovery of right whales in the North Atlantic.

The Phoenix model seen in the Sant Ocean Hall was created in eight months and installed this past spring. Dozens of contributors were involved in the process, including designers, painters, sculptors, engineers, whale biologists, exhibit fabricators and electricians.

Here is a short video of Phoenix.

Posted: 6 February 2010
About the Author:

John Gibbons is the Press Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian. He spends much of his time skulking around the collections and research centers sniffing out all the cool science going on at the Institution. In his non-skulking hours, he’s most easily found on a hiking trail looking at anything with feathers.