Monitoring Whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Post by John Berry, IFAW
I was really excited to learn about an opportunity to observe a whale tagging trip on July 23, whilst visiting IFAW HQ for a quarterly Development & External Affairs meeting. There had been a lot of discussion in the meeting about the importance of fundraisers and non-programme staff getting into the field and experiencing animals and our work first-hand, so this could be shared with donors and to promote a greater understanding of our work. I am in complete agreement with this sentiment, so it was wonderful to have an early opportunity to be able to put it into practice.
The purpose of the work is to electronically “tag” whales to track their movements and record their calls to facilitate a greater understanding of their behaviour in order to better protect them from ship strikes and entanglements. It was explained to me in layman’s terms that we were basically going to put an iPod on a whale. Cool, I could think of no better device to capture the song of a whale!
Up at 4.00 a.m to be on time to catch the boat at 6.00 a.m at Scituate, accompanied by Robbie Marsland and Josey Sharrad, colleagues from IFAW’s London Office. It’s hellishly early but at least we’re all in the same boat. It’s dark and foggy on the journey, so we all had our fingers crossed that conditions would improve enough to enable the boat to sail and make observation possible. We are greeted by a very friendly member of staff whose kind offer of coffee and donuts is eagerly accepted. Thankfully, the fog has lifted so the boat is able to set sail on time.
We sail for about an hour and a half on very calm seas with visibility improving all the time. We all have a clear view from the top deck of the boat and everyone is avidly scanning the horizon, hoping for the first sighting. It doesn’t take long – glimpses are seen of a humpback breaching on the port-side at 11.00 o’clock. There is great excitement on the boat and it seems like in no time at all we are surrounded by whales. Robbie has a powerful digital SLR camera and is able to capture some great shots.
This is my first experience of whales up close and personal and I am awe-struck. It’s incredibly hard to convey the experience in words: Being amongst the whales evokes feelings of awe, humility and a sense of the general feebleness of humanity in the face of nature. It’s all been said before and much more eloquently of course. You really have to pinch yourself to remind yourself how vulnerable these enormous creatures are to man-made threats.
We soon rendezvous with our sister-ship and the small boats are launched. This is when the fun really starts. The rubber speedboats boats have powerful outboard motors and are literally playing tag with the whales, trying to get close enough to attach the monitoring devices using forty-foot poles. The whales seem to take great delight in thwarting the exercise. It’s difficult work and requires enormous patience and skill. The boats get closer and closer but time and time again, the whales evade them. From out of nowhere, the fog descends and the boats have to be recalled.
The crew of one of the boats boards our vessel and we all have a chat over coffee in the galley. I talk with two scientists who have been past-recipients of IFAW grants. It’s very motivating to told the difference that our support has made first hand. I also meet Professor Ben Halpern from Duke University. Professor Halpern is engaged in the Google Ocean project to map the sea-bed similar to Google Earth. The Professor is also involved in the Census of the Sea Project for which a London conference is planned in 2010. I am suitably impressed that such an eminent academic is still able to get his hands dirty in the field.
We wait for an hour or so to see if conditions improve but unfortunately they don’t. Reluctantly, we head for home. What a privilege it’s been to have this level of access to whales and the people that study and protect them. It doesn’t take too much reflection to realise that this is one of the best days I have ever experienced at work. Two words sum up the experience – “motivational” and “inspirational.”