Whale Warriors

A dedicated Plymouth-based team of researchers and environmental advocates work to protect local leviathans

By Pamela Ellertson | Photography by Kjeld Mahoney and Pamela Ellertson

On a cool fall day, camera-clad eco-tourists board a Captain John Whale Watching vessel at Plymouth’s Town Wharf in hopes of seeing one of the largest mammals on earth. The boat is traveling to Stellwagen Bank, one of the primary feeding grounds for humpback whales. Weighing as much as six elephants, the whales come to the surface of the water to feed—close enough for the passengers to feel the spray from the whale flukes smashing down on the surface of the water.

On this day, the passengers are accompanied by an intern from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a global charity whose North American headquarters is based in Plymouth. The WDC interns, staff and volunteers hope to harvest as much information as possible about the whales from the photographs they take. How many whales were sighted? Which species? Were they injured? Has that particular whale been seen before? How has it changed from last season? The WDC will use the evidence they collect as ammunition in their fight to protect cetaceans from a range of threats.

The WDC was founded in 1986 by 16-year-old Kieran Mulvaney in the United Kingdom to raise public awareness about the threats to whales and dolphins. A range of hazards have taken an enormous toll on whale populations worldwide. Accidental entanglements in fishing line, vessel strikes and commercial whaling have resulted in “nearly three million whales being killed just in the 20th century,” says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the executive director of the WDC’s North American office.

While Mulvaney grew up to become a prolific conservation writer, the WDC matured into a global leader in protection efforts for whales and dolphins with offices in England, Scotland, Germany, Australia and Argentina. In 2005, the WDC opened its North American office in a small, Cape-style house on a residential street just a 10-minute walk from Plymouth’s Town Wharf.

Operating on a $500,000 annual budget, primarily funded by individual donations and grants, one of the WDC’s primary tasks is monitoring whale populations located about an hour’s cruise from Plymouth in the whale feeding grounds. Humpbacks, minke, finbacks, sei whales and North American right whales all frequent the marine sanctuary, which encompasses just over 840 square miles of ocean, stretching from about three miles north of Cape Cod to about three miles southeast of Cape Ann.

A researcher photographs whales from the top of a whale watch vessel. The images are used to identify specific animals.

Captain John Boats whale watching vessels welcome a WDC intern aboard every voyage from the beginning of whale watching season in April to its end in late October, which adds up to roughly 300 trips. The Captain John Boats vessels and 23 other commercial whale watching companies belong to an education and conservation group called Whale Sense. The program is sponsored by the WDC and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote responsible whale watching practices.

“It’s amazing for a girl from the middle of Europe to see these incredible creatures wild in the ocean,” says 23-year-old Sabina Raskova, who traveled from the Czech Republic to become one of the WDC’s interns for the 2016 season.

Most of the voyages departing Plymouth head to the southern tip of Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Provincetown. The thing that attracts the whales to this spot soon becomes apparent, as a school of sand lance, a fish with the dimensions of a pencil, swims beneath the boat in such vast numbers that the fish resemble a pasture of undulating sea grass.

Excited tourists shout “Look, look over there!” and jockey for optimal viewing positions as one of the five whales spotted that day surfaces.

Raskova takes as many photos as possible in the five or so seconds the whale is visible, paying particular attention to the black and white markings on the humpback’s flukes. These colorations vary from one whale to the next and are a tool used to identify individual whales. Essentially, the fluke is like the whale’s fingerprint. As whales grow, however, these markings can change, so other characteristics, like the ridges on the end of the fluke and dorsal fin variations, are also used to determine which whale has been sighted.

Monica Pepe, the WDC policy, education and conservation manager explains that any one of a host of adverse conditions—a cloudy day, spray covering a fluke or simply the need to keep a safe distance from the animals—can make identifying the whales a challenge. Even so, the WDC sighted 294 individual whales during the 2016 season. The four paid WDC staff and summer interns had to sift through nearly 25,000 photographs to figure out the total number.

They cross-referenced the photos with images of nearly 3,000 whales—and their known offspring—indexed in an exhaustive catalogue. Of the five whales seen on this particular day, Raskova was able to identify four: Fray, Tortuga, the 13th calf of Glo and another, unnamed whale that for the time being is being referred to as #1662.

Once the whales are identified, clues to their lives—which for a humpback can last up to 50 years—are revealed. A female named Salt, named for the sprinkling of white markings on her dorsal fin, is considered the matriarch of Cape Cod waters. There have been sightings of her dating back to 1975. By monitoring the animal over time, researchers are able to assess her health. They note any injuries and how long it takes her to recover from them. They also pay attention to her weight. Does she look skinnier than expected after her annual 1,200-1,500-mile migration from warm Caribbean waters where mating and calving take precedence over eating? It is not only Salt’s general health that concerns researchers; any physical aberration from the norm could signal a problem impacting the entire population.

By observing whale behavior, scientists can learn about their lifestyle. “By paying attention to who we are seeing and who they are with, we see if they form friendships,” says Silvia. After watching Salt for so many decades, researchers know that, including her grandchildren, she has at least 30 descendants. When she is pregnant, she is frequently spotted with another female named Kardo. Only further observation will tell if sightings of the pair are coincidence, or if Kardo is a true friend showing up when most needed.

Another cultural phenomenon discovered in humpbacks at Stellwagen Bank is a hunting technique referred to as kick-feeding. Unlike the other 14 major humpback populations scattered around the globe from Hawaii to Eastern Australia, humpbacks near Plymouth, smack the surface of the water with their flukes before descending beneath their prey. On their way back to the surface they “bubble feed,” confusing small fish by blowing clouds of air bubbles on them. Many other whale populations bubble feed, but so far, none have been seen preceding the technique with a good, swift kick. Perhaps in addition to confusing their prey, humpbacks want to startle them before blinding them in a fog of bubbles. No one knows for sure. What they do know is that the kick feeding behavior emerged in the last 15 years and is favored by younger whales. Grand Dame Salt does not deign to kick feed.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation interns educate passengers aboard a Captain John Boats whale watching vessel.

However, many of her children and their offspring do. To Silvia and others, this supports the idea of a learned behavior specific to the region.

“It’s amazing to me that you can go out there with one GPS and one data sheet and come back with all that,” says Asmutis-Silvia.

Gabrille Lopez, a 26-year-old WDC intern from Norwalk, Connecticut, sailed on a different day and her experience was not as uplifting as Raskova’s. Lopez spotted a whale acting very sporadic and moving around a lot in an uncoordinated way.

Unfortunately, in addition to the calf swimming next to her, buoys were moving along with the whale. “They were attached to her body and one buoy was very close to her mouth,” says Lopez.

According to the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, whose members include the New England Aquarium, the University of New Hampshire, Duke University, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, records indicate that 78 percent of the right whale and 66 percent of the humpback population have evidence of at least one entanglement interaction, with many animals experiencing multiple entanglement events

FAST FACT: The WDC team sifts through nearly 25,000 photographs to figure out the total number of whales sighted during the 2016
season. (there were 294)

“We potentially lose 25-30 humpbacks every year due to entanglement in the Gulf of Maine,” says Asmutis-Silvia. Not surprisingly, ending entanglement and bycatch tops the list of WDC goals. “In one instance, I saw the line had actually sawed into the bone. The chronic pain must have been awful.”

All whales and dolphins in American waters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while three of the species the WDC monitors—the North Atlantic right whale, fin whales and sei whales—are listed as endangered. By influencing policy and public opinion, the WDC also hopes to end whale captivity in theme parks. They also advocate ending commercial whaling operations, which still exist in places like Japan, Norway and Iceland.

A recent, hard-fought win for the WDC was the expansion of habitat for the endangered North American right whale, of which it is estimated that only 500 remain. Working for six years in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and over a dozen other conservation groups, scientists and academics, the WDC ultimately helped expand their protected habitats. Ship speed limits were enacted to help reduce vessel strikes in areas favored by the whales.

“It’s that perfect storm mix of people that work together. I say storm because sometimes it really is a fight…a fight on behalf of whales, so you have to bring as much power to the table as you can,” says Asmutis-Silvia.

Armed with cameras, data sheets and a quiet, steadfast dedication, the WDC team is working hard to protect these majestic marine animals. They will declare victory, says Silvia, when the oceans teem with so many of these giant, yet elusive, creatures that they “put themselves out of business.”

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