Taken from the Times Globe Tuesday, September 28/99 - Photos by Peter Walsh

Marked by Contact

Right whale with a large scar
This right whale shows a large scar, probably from a collision with a passing ship.

A Day in the Bay

by Brian Kemp
Times Globe staff writer

    "Over there," Moira Brown said calmly, and then pointed the bow of her research boat in the direction of three dark spots about two miles away. "We've got right whales up ahead."

    Ms. Brown, a Quebec native, works with East Coast Eco-Systems in Maine and the Centre for Coastal Studies outside of Boston. Every summer since 1985, she has been on the Bay of Fundy in collaboration with the New England Aquarium's North Atlantic right whale project, headquartered in Lubec, Me., about a two-hour drive from Saint John.

    A day's work aboard the Nereid can last 16 hours. This day, five female researches and one male hoped to spend 12 hours on the bay - two of them just to chug from Lubec out past Grand Manan into the middle of the bay.

A flip of a tail in the Bay of Fundy    Also on board the Nereid is John Logan, the man who runs the Irving Oil tanker fleet. Mr. Logan wants to see, close up, how the right whales live. Irving Oil has taken a strong interest in the researchers' efforts, having quietly given $39,000 (U.S.) to the aquarium over the past two years.

    Researchers have documented over 100 right whales in the Bay of Fundy this summer, a third of the world's population. The whales feed on plankton here from early summer until late fall, then move south.'

    Researcher Amy Knowlton and the others have devoted their careers to understanding "what the species is all about," she said. "To prevent the right whales from going extinct is a challenge."

    As the boat moved closer, a whale lifted its huge flipper above the choppy waves. Two researchers, carrying cameras, climbed to a precarious position on the bow and perched above the heaving Bay of Fundy.

    Then researchers spotted a right whale with fishing gear wrapped around one of its flippers and dragging a buoy. Ms. Brown quickly turned the vessel toward it, but the whale dove and disappeared.

    Fishing gear can cut deep into the whales, causing infection, or it can get into their mouths, limiting their ability to dive and feed. There are at least three right whales now carrying fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy.

    "It's a big problem," said Ms. Brown.

    Ms. Knowlton and two other researchers boarded a Zodiac. They zoomed off, bouncing on the waves, carrying a long aluminium pole with a sharp cutting blade at the end, like a garden trimmer. They hoped to use it to cut the rope entangled around the whale, but they were not able to get close to the creature or another entangled whale that was spotted later. .

    About an hour later, the right whales gather for a rarely seen social ritual which the researchers believe sometimes involves mating.

    It began with just three or four whales. Then many more arrived, swimming in as straight as locomotives on a track. Soon there were 25 of the massive creatures within a couple of hundred yards of each other, churning the water and blowing every few seconds, sending soft showers of mist over the boat.

    Flippers and flukes (tails) were thrust into the air. So were heads and bodies, which rose and fell with great splashes. The gleaming whales breathed hard and the sounds reverberated across the water.

    These are magical moments, but they they are moments full of hard work on the boat. The researchers haven't seen a gathering of this magnitude on the bay in more than five years. They barked orders to one another. They recognized whales and rattled off a new name every few seconds. It was like a reunion.

    "There's Baldy. She's huge. There's Stumpy. There's Van Halen. "

    (Van Halen has a marking in the shape of an electric guitar).

    Another whale hadn't been seen for more than five years.

    Someone noted that the whales gathered at this spot on this day almost one-10th of the world's right whales - are in the middle of the shipping lane.

    Amid the churning whales was a female rolling on her back. The researchers believe the others are males vying to mate with her. One researcher spotted a glimpse of a seven-foot-long whale penis.

    The male whales will move alongside the female and hope to keep that position, Ms. Brown said, but other males try to push them aside.

    "And then the female plays hard to get," said Ms. Brown.

   This gentle gathering went on for hours, with the group breaking up and reforming a number of times. Another female joined the fray, which is unusual. The giants - some of them twice as long as the Nereid - ignore the boat, which Ms. Brown keeps about 50 feet away.

    And then it's over. The whales split up and the sea is quiet.

    Some 12 to 13 months from now, a calf conceived during this gathering may be born.

    The researchers talked excitedly as they eat lunch, and thanked their passengers for bringing the Nereid luck this day.

    "It's the best sex we've seen all summer," joked Ms. Brown.

    The researchers photograph other whales, but before long it is time to turn for Lubec. Everyone found a spot to relax on the small boat.

    Later, Mr. Logan assessed what he saw. More than ever, it convinced him that a solution to ship collisions must be found.

    "I was impressed with seeing the right whales up close, and I learned something about their behavior," Mr. Logan said.

    The New England Aquarium researchers have played a crucial role in helping whales avoid ships in the 20 years that they have been launching from Lubec into waters off Grand Manan.

   They photograph and catalogue the whales, collect DNA samples and conduct aerial surveys. Such work helped to get the Bay of Fundy right whale conservation area established.

    Ms. Brown said the future of the right whales depends on co-operation between researchers and the shipping industry.

    Part of that co-operation was evident the night before when Mr. Logan visited the aquarium's Lubec headquarters to eat supper with the researchers. Just before the meal began, Mr. Logan presented Ms. Brown with a $15,000 cheque signed by Irving Oil owner Arthur Irving.

    After witnessing the social gathering on the water, Mr. Logan is especially concerned about the animals' behavior.

    "They weren't too aware of the Nereid. I'm concerned about that. Are the whales going to know when ships come by?"

    The new research might lead to a solution, said Mr. Logan.

    The research into the acoustic device was started at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts this summer.

    A recording device was attached to a couple of right whales with a suction cup. It basically listened to what the whales heard, recording sound for about three hours. If a whale ventures near a ship, researchers could hear what that sounds like to the whale.

   The device also measures the whale's acceleration, pitch and roll.

    "If a sound comes to the whale and it turns away sharply we'll be able to tell that," said Scott Kraus, research director of the New England Aquarium.

    There is also a temperature and depth sensor on the device, so researchers know exactly where the whale was when it heard the vessel.

    The devices were put on several whales late this summer and they worked pretty well, said Mr. Kraus.

    There were no ships around, so researchers played the noise of a ship passing. The data has been collected but not analyzed.

    "It was just a feasibility study," said Mr. Kraus. "We had a limited amount of time and very little money for it."

    This research may eventually lead to the development of a small narrow band acoustic device like a horn that a captain who sailed into a popular whale area could use to wake up whales so they'd move out of harm's way.

    "There's a couple of ways in which you can avoid ship collisions," said Mr. Kraus. "You can let the ship know the whale is in front of it and turn the ship or you can let the whale know that the ship is coming and get the whale out of the way."

    There could be complications. Mr. Kraus said the whales may be acoustically tuned in to certain noises but won't recognize them as a danger.

    But the research is a start, both Mr. Kraus and Mr. Logan acknowledge.

    Irving Oil is involved, Mr. Logan said, because it wants to be "pro-active and have some input into the solution. "

    It is an issue that the shipping industry has to pay attention to, said Mr. Kraus, because "these are the most endangered whales in the world.

    Mr. Kraus, who started the right whale monitoring project in 1980 and has spent many years following the creatures, envisions a larger scale program next summer.

    He sees a solution to ship collisions on the horizon, and an acoustic device may be part of that solution.

    "The whales have got to be in the Bay of Fundy," said Mr. Kraus. "If they've got to be there and the ships have to be there, we have to figure out some way to make them coexist."