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Conservationist Doing Right by Threatened Whale

Wildlife: The southern right whale was pronounced extinct in 1973. But it is now making a comeback, in large part because of Jose Truda Palazzo, who has spent his inheritance and 15 years studying the mammal.

June 30, 1996|TODD LEWAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

IMBITUBA, Brazil — His raft adrift in the languid, turquoise waters of the South Atlantic, Jose Truda Palazzo focuses his binoculars on a shadow in the depths to the east.

"There!" he shouts. "There! She's coming up to jump! Quick, get that motor going!"

In seconds, the shadow grows long and dark. Then the surface of the ocean bulges and out bursts a rare sight--a southern right whale, the second most endangered whale species on the planet.

The whale rises immensely, water pouring from her sides. Her bulk is black and oily smooth and tapered like a submarine. And when she crashes back into the sea, the spray roars up in a curtain of crystalline drops.

She submerges in a slow slant, then rises again, the hump of her back awash as she breaks the surface to breathe. Up goes a spout, high, pluming like a geyser.

"For the love of God," gasps Palazzo, a conservationist who has studied right whales for 15 years. "She's got to be 40, no, 50 feet long."

Suddenly, there is another boil in the water--a four-ton calf jumping. He leaps on his mother's back and rolls about, butting his blunt head against her.

Palazzo smiles. "It's really gratifying to see them here, in Imbituba," he says, "since this is where thousands of whales were butchered at the local whaling station."

Three decades ago, these docile creatures appeared doomed to extinction. Whalers overhunted them. Trawlers frightened them away from their warm-water spawning grounds. Scientists cut them up for research.

By 1973, they had vanished from Brazilian waters. Fewer than 400 were known to survive on Earth.

Today the right whales are making a comeback off Brazil's southern seaboard, thanks largely to Palazzo's crusade to protect them and their underwater world.

With help from the International Wildlife Coalition, the Summerlee Foundation in Dallas and the British Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Palazzo manages a project that studies the whales and persuades fishermen to spare them.

Last year, he documented 48 right whales off Brazil. Worldwide, the population has recovered to about 4,000.

"Truda's work is crucial because Brazil is where right whales bear and nurture their calves," says Dave Wiley, a senior scientist at the World Wildlife Coalition in Cape Cod, Mass. "It's remarkable how Truda has produced such phenomenal results with so little money. He's basically running a one-man show down there."

The Right Whale Project, begun in 1982, also provides scientists new insights into the habits and makeup of the creature Brazilians call baleia franca--Portuguese for "free whale."

"When we started, we knew almost nothing about them," Palazzo says. "Even now, we still don't know basic things, like their complete migration routes or the dangers they face."

But his research has peeled away some of the mysteries of this primitive creature, a mammal uniquely adapted to both the near-freezing waters of the Antarctic and the tepid seas of the South Atlantic.

Like its endangered northern cousin found off Cape Cod, Mass., the southern right whale has existed for about 60 million years.

Enormous--18 yards long, 11 feet wide and weighing 40 to 60 tons when full grown--the right whale has no natural enemies except man.

Scientists identify the right whale by its black body, two rectangular pectoral fins, V-tail and white, wartlike ripples along its blunt head that look as if someone had run a finger through warm wax.

"Those ridges are like fingerprints--no two whales have the same ridges," Palazzo says. "That's how we tell them apart."

During the Southern Hemisphere summer, from December to March, adults feed in the Antarctic. These toothless creatures consume five tons of tiny sea organisms a day by straining them through a baleen, an elastic whalebone that hangs in parallel, platelike fringes from the upper jaw.

The monstrous diet helps them pad a 16-inch layer of blubber that insulates them from the cold and satisfies them the eight months they spend away from the South Pole.

As winter approaches, the right whales migrate north, to warmer waters off South Africa, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. Last year, naturalists spotted them off New Zealand for the first time.

Moving no faster than 15 mph, the right whales migrate to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and up to Argentina's Valdez Peninsula, before proceeding past Uruguay to Brazil.

After a 2,000-mile journey, they arrive in May off the Brazilian coastal states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina and begin mating.

Whale sex isn't exactly lovey-dovey. Four to five males approach the female at once, groaning and bellowing, and she resists them by turning upside down and keeping her belly out of the water.

For hours the males try to flip her over. When she finally tires, her suitors fight to go first. "It's total mayhem," Palazzo says. "My advice to whale watchers: Stay away while they're copulating."

Chances are good the female will become pregnant: Each male penetrates her, injects his sperm in seconds and departs.

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