Whale Winds

worlds most endangered whale
Unfathomable. Looking down the throat of the world’s most endangered large whale, Eubalaena glacialis. Right whale image taken by Trudi Webster (permit 633-1763).

Bay of Fundy, Lubec, Maine
September 20, 1996

Lubec is dying. There are no fish left. The lovely old, paint-peeling houses are for sale because the fishing families can’t feed their children anymore and they are leaving. The stores on Main Street are boarded up, sometimes burnt-out by desperately bored and angry teens. The R. J. Peacock fish-packing plant is the only cannery still operating, the seagulls lining its roof like vultures. We see the rare tuna out there in the bay, but the draggers have ruined the shallows for the bottom feeders. Many fishermen have grouped together on tuna boats, working for free in the hopes that just one fish will bring in enough to pay the bills. There aren’t many lobstermen left. A few will go after whelks and a few more for sea urchins. No local will eat that stuff. On the main road into town there is a big weathered sign that reads: “Easternmost Point in Maine.” The teens at the local Red & White will tell you, like a litany, “Lubec ain’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” And we do see it, looking out from Lubec toward the immense Bay of Fundy guarded by its thirty-foot tides and whirlpools with names like “the Old Sow,” and her numerous “Piglets.” Between the coast and the end of the world is what we are here for. Because, here be monsters.

whales being fed
Wet feathers. A 50+ ft (15 m), feeding Right whale filters over 2500 lbs a day of rice-sized copepods through fingernail-like baleen plates up to 12 ft long. Image taken by Trudi Webster (permit 633-1763).

Hurricane coming. It is the last week of field research and we can’t get out on the water. On the cliffs overlooking the giant rip called Quoddy Road, the waves are spectacular, sheeting up into the air as if monstrous island-long whales are blowing, atomizing the ocean after a planet-deep dive. The storm whips so fiercely Rox’s small dog, Stretch, is half windborne, her ears sailing out from side to side like airfoils.

Looming out of the driving horizontal rain, New England Aquarium’s field lab at 2 Bayview Street is a weathered land Leviathan, its stacked maze of rooms overhung by steep slanted roofs bearing up solidly under the assault. Inside, the chill is dissipated by the buttery fragrance of popped corn, the hum of computers, and a landlocked crew murmuring over newly arrived slides of the right whales we are here to study, and, perhaps, simply witness as their numbers dwindle. Light tables glow, and keyboards tap.

North Atlantic right whales were once so numerous that the sea was black from Georgia to Fundy during their migrations along the coast of New England. They are baleen whales, filtering minute copepods in vast quantities from what are now, sadly, the same fast currents used as shipping lanes. Even a fifty-ton right whale won’t do well in a collision with a tanker, and the boats sometimes run over whole courtship groups on the surface. Ship strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, and polluted food seem to be finishing the job the Basque whalers started a thousand years ago when they targeted these whales, so rich in oil they were later termed “oil-butts.” The whales became commercially extinct in the twentieth century. The few left have been protected from hunting since 1935, but it is a small population now. So today, instead of whales feeding across the horizon, one can see humans sitting in a staggered line stretching from one end of the research lab’s long workroom to the other, feeding information about the few remaining North Atlantic right whales into luminous blue computer screens.

The stormy fringes of Hurricane Fran have stopped all work out on the water. The town dock is empty of fishing boats, even the seagulls have scattered away into the gale. Our research vessel, Nereid, is moored in safer harbor over in Eastport. Phil zipped over in the Zodiac to check her lines and came back wringing stormwater from his sleeves. Amy has been on the cliffs with Stretch, taking a break from her computer and the incessant search to quantify the living and forestall the dying of whales. The wind has sucked the air from her lungs and she sails breathlessly back into the lab, flushed with the exhilaration of the storm. Scot is on the phone, explaining how weather can hold precedence over disappointed film crews. His daughters Brenna and Keeley are combing the long hair of their dog in the middle of the lab floor and arguing about the best way to eat—or wear—Oreo cookies.

Jennifer and Carolyn sit and trade insults while they re-invent the world on computer, creating models of the bay and our track lines. Marty is bent earnestly over a light table, sorting slides, her cockatiel on one shoulder nibbling at an ear. Lisa is going through files and regaling the room with the raucous inside story on the latest whale politics. Marilyn has printed corrections of her aerial survey sheets spread over the kitchen table, keeping company with Rox who is painting Admiral’s tail flukes stirring the wall above the stove. Once a ship called in a dead right whale floating tail-up out in the bay, but it was only Admiral, our mad matriarch, who loves to stand on her head and stir the air with her tail. She’s the only whale I can identify from a mile away. Phil knows them all.

I ask Phil to help ID a whale from the video clips I’m organizing, while Moe and Chris debate methods for re-fletching the arrows used for darting and satellite tagging in a narrow room between the lab and kitchen. Everything being done and said around the huge old house has something to do with right whales. The right whales to kill that are almost no more. Giant, blubbery, buoyant, knob headed, comb-toothed, North Atlantic right whales. It is thought there are fewer than three hundred left and their numbers are dropping. We seem to be on the brink of an irreversible act, to save or lose this other species, so unlike us. I’ve read about these whales, dreamed of them rolling in their giant tides. But with the arrival of Fran it becomes uncomfortably clear that our time is running out. Our field season is nearing its end and this long week of bad weather rules out everything but indoor work, data analysis, and lab repair.

Finally, the winds shift to a kindlier direction and Phil invents a plan to get us all back out on the water. Amy, our captain, will take most of the crew south to Bar Harbor where Moe has gotten the use of research vessel Indigo to survey Brown’s Bank. I’m envious, thinking of all the new sights I’ll miss. But I have to leave Lubec before the rest of the crew, and days out on the Nereid are worth gold now. The party leaves and we few go out to see what effect Fran may have had on Fundy, our Bay of Fun, and on the right whales.

I fully expect not to see a single whale my last day. I think I am as relaxed as I’ve ever been on Nereid, knowing it is the end of something that may never be repeated. I thought I’d already had my perfect moment.

whale feeding
Sea-monster at a glassy table. A subsurface Right whale feeds open mouthed. Identifying callosity—forming a unique pattern on every whale—show above water on the rostrum. Image taken by Trudi Webster (permit 633-1763).

It is the thickest fog we’ve had yet. Sounds are reduced; the slosh and creak of the boat seems muffled—and the water is unnaturally still. With no horizon we might be sitting on a pond. We are still feeling the effects of the storm in its antithesis. No one cares what happens next. The mist forces us to exist in each quiet, eternal moment as if that is all there is. We play whale roulette with the fog and just keep going. “I think we should try over here,” Marilyn insists, moving us from one identically opaque spot to the next, keeping us out far longer than would normally seem reasonable, considering we can see about fifty yards or less. But then there is a pod of white-sided dolphins moving with quiet puffs of breath through our circle of calm. And then, “I think we should be over there.” Marilyn insists again and we are all so relaxed we go on and on, leapfrogging through fog. I finally fall asleep, only to wake an hour later to the familiar calls of “What frame are you shooting?” “Was that whale broken or continuous?” “Does it have lips?”—whale researchers identifying whales from the island-like callosities on their heads and mouths. I sit up to a whole new day of bright sun, and not a single wispy shred of fog left to smooth waters now animated by whales.

I grab a notepad to draw, on a template, the identifying patterns of white callosities on black whale skin. The callosities are categorized as “broken” or “continuous” islands and peninsulas, scattered in individual configurations around the whales’ upper jaw and lips, like islands on a sea chart. This drawing of “Broken, Two-Islands back,” will later help us organize our photographs and match this whale—using callosities like fingerprints—to the catalog of known whales. We record her presence and behavior in this time and place, leaving her unnamed for now, and move on to the next.

Rox spots a small whale breaching on the horizon and there seem to be other whales arrowing in on a parallel heading. It looks as if a courtship group is about to form. I want to move toward the breaching calf and that seems to be Phil’s intention, but somehow we are on the same tack as the converging whales and we are drawn, as if by whatever force draws them, toward a sight Phil says has never been observed in all the years the Project has been monitoring right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

First we stop to photograph a mother and calf that haven’t been seen before. Phil is excited by the possibility that they may be new animals to the Bay. We are all focused on documenting the pair for a brief flurry of time, and then, looking up, are stunned. In a full circle around the boat, in water so calm and smooth you can see entire whale bodies below the surface, there are twenty right whales skim feeding, open mouthed. A single basking shark moves among them, its triangular dorsal fin like a giant billboard. Some of the whales are feeding in formation, a staggered line of dark heads moving together through the blue-green surface. I am frantically trying to get it all on video until Phil quietly tells me I am missing the sight of a lifetime. I take the camera away from my eye and really look. We are surrounded by a quiet whirlpool of whales. They are no longer the lovely sleek animals we have seen playing and courting, but suddenly sea-monsters at a glassy table, creating new ocean wavelets with their huge open mouths. Wide gums show slick above baleen plates overlapping as heavily as wet feathers. Stocky tails pump forward like pistons. Eyes peer out sideways from jutting cones where one expects sockets, like the independent, revolving eyes of a chameleon. For the first time I can see the whole whale and not just what shows when they surface to breathe. That may be the one thing our species have in common after all. We both breathe air.

I suddenly know where the odd sea-monster drawings in the museums come from. I see these creatures that I am just beginning to recognize as individuals—Mauveen and Knottyhead, Kleenex, Punctuation, and the high-spirited Admiral our tail-stirrer—and they’ve turned into incomprehensible beings simply by opening their mouths. Their long baleen plates are tucked into a lower jaw almost separated from each side of the head, leaving a wide triangle open in the front where water streams in, filters through baleen, and rushes back out over curved lips.

“Now I know why their tails are so big!” Marilyn says softly, “They have to be incredibly powerful to push that mass of water forward, like dragging a bucket over the side when the boat is moving.”

The double blowhole of the nearest whale snaps shut after a bubbling rumble. It sinks and we can see the entire pattern of the head callosities laid out beneath the water like one of our templates. The head swells back to a bulbous body covered in the fungoidal circles of a moss agate, the body is shorter, the flukes proportionally wider than I pictured, after seeing them only in parts. The entire crew is hanging, open mouthed, over the railing and for a brief moment not a single camera shutter is snapping. We record the whales feeding for hours. How can we possibly know what it is like to be them?

In the end we stop all pretence of work and cut the motor, drop a hydrophone over the side, and listen to the moans and groans of feeding. The sun is setting once again. In the dim light we continue handing the headphones back and forth between us, sitting dead in the water, not even attempting to follow when finally the group drifts gently away from us, still feeding.

The moans grow fainter and I take a moment alone at the bow, rocking and listening to the first and last sounds I’ll ever know of right whales. The forceful, shushing, trumpeting sigh of breathing on every horizon.

admiral the whale
Admiral. The most recent sighting of the matriarch April 7, 2007, photograph by observer Denise Risch (permit 633-1763).

There have been calving booms and droughts since 1996, but ship strikes and entanglements have been among the primary factors keeping right whale numbers down, currently, to around 392 known individuals according to Phil’s 2006 count. The Right Whale Gang has worked diligently toward changing the shipping lanes, helping vessels avoid whales with aerial surveys and acoustic warning systems, and attempting to develop whale-safe fishing gear. They have instituted a yearly North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium open to every discipline that impacts or studies the whales. Their ability to incorporate multiple disciplines is a landmark in joining advocacy and research. One hopeful theory is that preventing the deaths of even two mothers a year could turn the population around. But even after more than twenty-seven years of research, funding is always uncertain.

Then, December 2006, Marilyn wrote that Admiral, the grand old dame of the Bay of Fun, had become entangled in fishing gear. Admiral, first photographed in 1979, age unknown, was big and old and strong. She was the boss of the fleet, the tail sailor, identifiable from miles off as she waved her flukes at the sky. Always biggest, healthiest, most exuberant, Admiral got free of the nets that left deep wounds on her peduncle and fluke. The net didn’t kill her outright. But, Marilyn wrote, she looked unhealthy and it seemed clear later that she was failing. As I grieve for playful Admiral and hope for her survival, she somehow personalizes a great sadness for all of the less known creatures and species that are disappearing in this century of drastic change. We’ve all shared air.

All images thanks to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

Note: All photos here have been taken with NOAA Fisheries permit 633-1763, under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts.

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