The Whale Watchers
For thirty years a group of dedicated scientists has turned a house in Lubec into a base of operations for monitoring some of th
- By: Amy Sutherland
- Photography by: Herb Swanson
In the late 1970s, a New York City-based oil company with deep pockets set its sights on the small, fading fishing village of Eastport. The Pittston Co. proposed erecting a 650-acre refinery along the town’s deep, foggy harbor hard on the Canadian border. The company’s environmental impact statement claimed there would be none. In response, the National Marine Fisheries hired Scott Kraus, a young marine biologist at the New England Aquarium, to see what he could find.
During the summer of 1980 Kraus folded his six-foot-four-frame into a single-engine plane and scanned the Bay of Fundy with binoculars through the cockpit windows. He searched from a boat as well. Over the month-long survey he spied porpoise, finback whales, humpback whales, white-sided dolphins, and, to his surprise, twenty-five highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, including mothers and their calves.
Ironically, big oil had essentially handed science a huge lead. Very little was known at the time about North Atlantic right whales. The once superabundant animals — whose name in fact refers to how easy they were to harpoon — had been hunted to near extinction. The relative few that were left then seemed to nearly vanish. Could these secluded northern waters, which with its treacherous tides and fog and had always been too dangerous for whalers, be a migrational outpost for the whales, Kraus wondered?
The scientist returned with a team the next summer and the summer after that. He bought a boat and a dock and eventually a house. Soon a parallel migration pattern was established with the whales themselves. Each July, not long before the right whales roiled the Bay of Fundy with their forty-to-eighty-ton-hulks, Kraus and a group of scientists would move their computers, cameras, and wet-weather gear into a sprawling, ramshackle clapboard house cum field station on one of Lubec’s steep streets.
Over the past thirty years, this unassuming, harborside village has been the summer base for one of the longest running whale research projects in the world. During those three decades, the team has identified more than five hundred individual whales and amassed a vast online photographic catalogue of the mammals. They have learned that these chilly waters double as a nursery for the behemoths, that the whales feast on tiny crustaceans called copepods while here, and that humans are the species’ most serious threat. Ship strikes and entanglements are the animal’s leading cause of death.
Scientists have not only expanded their knowledge of the elusive Eubalaena glacialis, but with this kind of information they have been able to throw the species a safety line. For example, the team’s research showed that the whales tended to congregate in the Bay of Fundy’s shipping lanes, which were then consequently moved.
But whale research is a slow-going business and many questions still need to be answered if the whales are to survive — and soon. Why, after nearly eighty years of international protection, have the whale’s population of about 400 to 450 not increased? Where do the whales go in the summers when they aren’t spotted in the Bay of Fundy? These unanswered questions and many more are what bring Kraus and his team back year after year.
This summer an additional one weighs on the team: Where are the calves?
There is little right with the sorely misnamed right whale. The bulky baleen cetacean with the massive, shovel-shaped lower jaw and double blowholes is one of the pokiest swimmers, dawdles at the surface, and sticks close to shore. That made it the “right” whale for whalers. The name stuck, but the species didn’t. By the time the hunting of them was banned worldwide in 1935, they had dwindled to an estimated one hundred. There are other populations of right whales in the South Atlantic, and North and South Pacific. The plump, hearty whales in the southern hemisphere are rebounding, but not their thinner, scarred cousins in the northern hemisphere.
In the North Atlantic that may be because the whales are essentially urban animals, says Kraus. Each year, females, their calves, and some juveniles migrate from the calving grounds off northern Florida along the soft curves of the U.S. East Coast to this far-flung bay on the Canadian border. Along that 1,400-mile-journey the whales run a gauntlet of busy harbors, shipping lanes, polluted waters, and fishing gear. Even in the relatively calm and clean waters off Maine, they must navigate a tangle of lobster pot lines. Veterinarian Rosalind Rolland, Kraus’ fellow researcher and wife, compares them to deer trying to cross a highway — a very dirty highway.
This morning begins like every other at the “Whale House,” as it is know around Lubec. While the rest of the team sleeps, two of the researchers rise in the thin light of the freshly broken morning and scrutinize weather reports. They check the forecast for the Bay of Fundy and read the wind speeds at Grand Manan Island airport. If the currents are forecast to blow less than fifteen knots and the dew point doesn’t indicate fog, they will rouse the rest of the team and in short order board their research boat, the Neried, and embark on the two-hour, chilly trip northeast to the Bay of Fundy. On other mornings, including this Wednesday in late August, the early risers find the opposite and so let their colleagues snooze.
As wild animals go, whales are especially hard to track. They spend most of their lives out of sight deep below the water’s surface scrounging for the billion or so itty-bitty crustaceans that make up the minimum four hundred thousand calories they need to eat everyday. The tree-trunk-shaped Bay of Fundy only makes finding them harder. Tucked in a crook between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the bay is notoriously changeable, with inclement weather and some of the biggest tides on the planet. The researchers can’t photograph whales while standing on a rocking boat nor see them in the dense fog that creeps across the bay. In the past ten days, the team has only gotten out on the water twice.
Still, since they arrived in early August, they’ve seen more than fifty whales, but that includes only seven mother-and-calf pairs. Normally, that would be worth cheering, but last spring off the Florida coast, a record thirty-nine calves were born, about double the usual number. Why the rest has yet to arrive perplexes the Lubec team. That mystery will have to wait. Today, the team holes up inside, again.
Kraus, a large-boned man with a deep baritone and big laugh who’s now the New England Aquarium’s vice president for research, paid fifty thousand dollars in 1996 for what was known then as the Mulholland house.
Perched along the main road into town, the Whale House resembles a dilapidated but well-loved fraternity house. Faded wallpaper peels from the walls, and plaster droops from ceilings. The hardwood floors have been worn bare and dip here and there. The top two floors are devoted to disheveled bedrooms, including one that’s actually a closet. Graffiti covers the walls of the downstairs bathroom. The dormitory-like look is mixed with a whale design motif, what with all the pictures and knick-knacks of the animals. In the kitchen, where as many as twenty people may gather for dinner at two long tables, Rolland has painted a wall-sized mural of Admiral, a century-old female whale known for floating upside down, with her flukes pointed up out of the water, a posture called sailing. It’s been two years since they last saw Admiral. Any whale that isn’t seen in five years is assumed dead. Admiral hasn’t been declared that yet, but the team worries about her.
The number of researchers varies from year to year, but this summer there are a total of fourteen, ranging in age from twenty-four to fifty-six. The one thing they seem to all have in common other than their allegiance to the whales is that they are jacks-of-all-trades. They can captain boats, shoot dart guns, photograph, and cook crab cakes for large, convivial mobs of scientists. Four of the members have been with the team for twenty years.
Only a few trained specifically to be whale biologists. One is getting a master’s in math. Another has yet to finish college. Philip Hamilton, who has a master’s in environmental studies and joined the team in ’89, originally thought he’d go into real estate. He’s tried to leave the research team a few times, but he’s always drawn back. “There’s something really compelling about this small population, of knowing them so well,” he says.
Still, for the two months he’s in Lubec, Hamilton misses his partner and garden back in Putney, Vermont, as well as time to himself. There’s not much of that for the team during the two months they live and work together. Days are long here — a typical day on the water is fourteen hours. If the weather keeps them in Lubec on a Sunday, they will take the day off and hike at Quoddy Head State Park or mountain-bike on Campobello Island or play soccer at the local field. But if the forecast is good, off they go in search of whales. Consequently, Kraus recruits team members who are easygoing enough to take the changeable schedule and the rooming house ambiance but can put in long hours.
“People think we are on vacation up here, that it’s summer camp,” Kraus says. “In fact, it’s double time. We regularly work hundred-hour weeks.”
That’s because whale research entails an enormous amount of computer and paper work. On this landlocked morning in the house’s double parlor, Hamilton and three other researchers lean close to their computer screens to look for the smallest, subtlest details on digital photos of the whales, such as the curve of a pectoral fin. The individual animals, which are numbered and sometimes named, are identified by the pattern of essentially white calluses, called callosities, that dot their heads, lips, and jawlines. Each whale has a distinct pattern of the warty-looking splotches. Researchers compare photos of unidentified animals to images of identified ones looking for a match. The work is painstaking, like trying to find matching Rorschach drawings, and there is a constant backlog of photographs to I.D. The team has worked its way through the photos through 2007.
“We slog along,” says Rolland. “That’s why it’s hard to get funding for this project.”
In their cozier living quarters toward the rear of the house, Rolland and Kraus likewise settle side by side before computers for the day, she to write a scientific paper, he a grant proposal. Though the project is based at the New England Aquarium, Kraus still must raise funds from grants and private donations. The Bay of Fundy project alone costs about $150,000 a year. That has gotten harder to do as federal funding for right whale research was halved under the Bush administration and has yet to rebound, Kraus says.
Upstairs from Rolland and Kraus, Marilyn Marx, who joined the team in 1994 and has a liberal arts degree, has pulled the curtains on her large bedroom’s one window. Her computer screen dimly lights the room. “I need a cave to concentrate,” she explains. In the gloom, the slender woman with shoulder-length hair updates records of the whales’ scars. She scans photos of identified whales to see if fishing lines or boats have left new marks on their broad, black bodies. If so, she indicates the new scars on the diagram that is kept for each whale. Three quarters of the whale have some kind of scar from entanglements or boat strikes. Marx points out the deep grooves across their backs or missing chunks of fluke. Some have the ropes still embedded in them, such as six-year-old Kingfisher, who has a cord knotted around his right flipper. As he swims, Marx explains, the drag of the water pulls the rope deep into his flesh.
Outside, fog rolls in and out. Too many of these days in a row can wear on the team, between the monotony of the desk work, of being stuck inside, of wondering about the whales, the calves, but not being able to look for them. For all they know, Admiral is out in the bay’s fog just now, her fluke thrown high.
The forecast is for more of the same tomorrow.
The next morning northwest winds rifle the grass as one of Lubec’s dramatic eighteen-foot tides surges into the harbor. At about 9:30 a.m., six team members hastily load coolers, equipment, and extra clothes into the Nereid. The forecast was no good for the Bay of Fundy, but held the slightest promise for the waters due north and then east of Lubec over the Canadian border. Right whales are rarely sighted there, Hamilton explains, but the team periodically surveys there. Moreover, if the winds turn and the waves rise, they can easily beat it back to Lubec. That might be in a half-hour, Hamilton warns. “It’s a long shot.” But that’s enough for the stir-crazy team.
As the boat leaves the dock, three team members climb onto the bow, two to watch for the whales and then photograph them, and one to stand ready with pad and pen to mark down callosities and scars. The boat plows through water speckled with tiny bits of shiny, orange herring poop for about a half-hour as it passes Eastport and then East Quoddy Head to the west and Campobello Island to the east. Then, just as a bald eagle flaps by overhead, Marx signals that she’s spotted a fluke and what looks like a right whale’s signature V-shaped blow. Hamilton veers the boat northeast to where Marx points.
Six minutes later, the Nereid arrives at Marx’s best guess of where she saw the whale. There’s nothing but a light chop, but given that whales can stay submerged for twenty-five minutes as they scoop up copepods with their great, gaping maws, diving as deep as eight hundred feet, that is no surprise. Hamilton cuts the engine to listen for the whale’s blow. Each team member faces a different direction so they have a 360-degree view.
Suddenly a huge dark mass breaks through the water not far behind the boat. The animal resembles something that has come loose from the ocean floor and drifted up, like a blackened chunk of sunken ship. Hamilton quickly pulls the boat alongside the whale’s left flank, and the cameras on the bow begin to click.
“Can anyone say who it is?” calls Hamilton.
No one answers. Hamilton, who can pick out many of the whales by sight, says it’s #1306, Velcro, so named for a day the whale followed the boat around. The male with the white stippled jaws makes good on his name, and the crew comes across him several more times over the next hour or so while they race down flukes and other V-shaped blows. Somehow, each turns out to be Velcro. Eventually, just after the team downs some hard-boiled eggs, #3250, a male with no name, who Hamilton describes as “a really cool whale we never see,” surfaces. A little later, Tips, another male, surfaces, his smooth black back arching through the light chop. Over the next few hours the team finds a whale here, a whale there in the open waters south of tiny Wolf Island and north of Grand Manan’s pointed tip, and a day that was a long shot becomes a worthwhile one. Each time they find a whale they have to work at lightning speed because most of the animals only linger at the surface briefly. In those few minutes or less, the researchers click and draw away like mad, before the giant slips out of sight.
Then they turn their eyes to the horizon again, looking for another blow or fluke in the distance.
As the afternoon rolls on, the sun grows warmer and the bay flattens. Not long past 2 p.m., after everyone peels off down vests and heavy coats, suddenly the water erupts with blows and flukes. With V-shaped blows dotting the horizon, the team has to resist the temptation to run from one blow to the next. At one point, they pull up on a group of six whales and have to pick which to start with. There are so many blows, the ocean itself sounds like it’s exhaling.
“Anybody confused?” Hamilton calls.
They go through the group counter-clockwise, snapping their pictures as the whales lollygag at the surface. One rolls on its side and flaps a pectoral flipper. For the rest of the afternoon the team works on like this, racing from one whale to the next, scampering around the bow snapping photos, drawing the whales’ white patches, tracking the locations. Hamilton moves the boat back and forth, side to side, in a herky-jerky dance to get the photographers in position but also to stay clear of other whales. Eventually, as the sun dips, the team turns the boat south and, under a lavender sky, heads home. They’ve identified eighteen whales, including seven new calves. Behind the boat, Vs and flukes flash across the water.
That night over dinner, the team marvels at not only how many whales they saw that day, but where they saw them. Whales haven’t been spotted in those waters since the project’s first years. Why are they twenty miles farther north than typical? And so, they have yet another question to answer. If the winds are light enough tomorrow, they will take a stab at solving this new mystery, along with all the others the whales inspire.
- By: Amy Sutherland
- Photography by: Herb Swanson