In 1992, the mother of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) was hit and killed by a ship in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.  Researchers studying these whales named the 8-month-old baby Calvin because they knew that in order for it to survive, it would need to be feisty, like the character in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes.

A proposed government rule would require ships to slow down in areas where right whales are known to swim. “Our data suggest that whales hear ships but not in time to get out of the way,” says Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium. “This rule will help so much. Even a few seconds can make a huge difference.”

It isn’t easy to move out of the way fast when you are bigger than a school bus. Adult right whales can be 40 to 50 feet (12 to15 meters) long and weigh 200,000 pounds (90,000 kilograms). Babies, called calves, are never tiny. They are born weighing about 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and are about 13 feet (4 meters) long.

Whales may seem tough. Knowlton describes their skin as hard like a rubber car tire. “But the steel propeller on a boat is like a sharp knife,” says Knowlton.  The force of a ship hitting a whale causes severe injuries.

Calvin (the name stuck even though researchers later figured out she was a girl) has had many adventures. She got tangled in fishing gear and dragged it around for a long time before getting free. Calvin was luckier than a lot of whales who die when they are caught in fishing gear.

Calvin survived, and had a calf of her own in 2005. That calf should have a better chance for a long life, thanks to the proposed speed limits. And yes, the calf’s name is Hobbes.

Fast Facts

  • Only about 350 North Atlantic right whales survive today.
  • North Atlantic right whales don’t all look the same; researchers can tell them apart using photos because each has distinctive callosities (kuh-LAHS-uh-teez) or bumps of raised tissue, on their heads.
  • These animals got their names before 1935 when hunting them was legal. They were known as the “right” whales to kill. Nowadays people still endanger them, but in different ways: many are injured or killed when hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear.