Taken from the Times Globe Monday, September 27/99 - Photos by Peter Walsh

Whale Help on the Way

A right whale surfaces on the bay
A right whale surfaces in the Bay of Fundy,
almost close enough to touch from a research vessel.

Kinder, Gentler Ships
Irving Oil is shelling out research dollars to help perfect a device that will cut collisions between tankers and rare right whales

by Brian Kemp
Times Globe staff writer

Brenna Kraas and cathy Quinn photograph right whales to keep track of the population    The man who runs Irving Oil's fleet of five tankers stood alone on the bow of the massive Irving Eskimo, sweeping his binoculars back and forth in search of whales.
    "Look at that," John Logan exclaimed as an endangered North Atlantic right whale swam a couple of hundreds yards in front.
    Another whale, appeared to starboard. Then another surfaced off the bow. And another. And another.
    "There's one more," he said, excitement in his rising voice.
   Mr. Logan was on the Irving Eskimo recently as it sailed from Saint John to Portland, Me., to deliver petroleum products. The day before, he had spent more than 11 hours sailing with the Nereid, a research vessel used by the New England Aquarium out of Lubec, Me., to monitor right whales.
   With the researchers, the Irving Oil executive saw more than 70 of the 300 right whales left on the planet. He got close enough to hear them breathe and to feel the delicate mist from their blow holes on his face.
    This day, Mr. Logan was whale watching from the oil tanker in order to get a different perspective.
    Consider that the aquarium's research vessel is 29 feet long and idles to within 50 feet of the whales. The 15 year- old sport fishing boat poses no danger to whales.
    By contrast, the Eskimo is 630 feet long and 90 feet wide. Loaded, its hull extends 36 feet under the waterline. Carrying 224,000 barrels of petroleum products the day Mr. Logan was aboard, the ship weighed more than 46,000 tonnes. Cruising at 15 knots, the Irving Eskimo does pose a danger to any whales in its path.

The Irving Eskimo

    At 45 to 55 feet long, weighing up to 100 tonnes, right whales are huge by most measures, but couldn't survive if struck by a ship. The shipping lanes that pass through the Bay of Fundy also pass through the right whales' summer feeding grounds.
    Sixteen whales have been struck and killed by ships on the east coast since 1970; three of those collisions were in the Bay of Fundy. Who hit the whales isn't known; the bay is used by a number of shipping lines.
    With only 300 right whales left, and a declining birthrate, the loss of even one whale is a blow to the species.
John Logan, an Irving Oil executive, goes aboard the Irving Eskimo to see first hand the right whales the tanker encounters every day.    Mr. Logan does not want his ships to kill whales, so he and Irving Oil have begun to take an interest research.
    Irving Oil is helping finance the New England Aquarium's right whale research project, having given it $39,000 (U.S) in the last two years.
    With corporate donations hard to come by, the money is crucial. The researchers budget about $90,000 to run the project from June to October. This year, they nearly ran out of money before September. Irving money allowed it to run until the end of this month.
    Scott Kraus, the director of research at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said Irving Oil is the only corporation on North America's Atlantic coast to help find a solution to whale-ship collisions.
    "They're way out in front of everybody else," Mr. Kraus said.
    Among the things being developed is an acoustic device that could be fitted to ships to warn whales to stay out of their path.
    This clear, crisp day on the Irving Eskimo, the whales moved out of the tanker's way. A couple did swim directly in front of the tanker, a couple hundred yards out, and made it past the ship with time to spare.
    Mr. Logan said it would be a good idea for a couple of New England Aquarium researchers to sail with a tanker through the bay to view the whales' reactions.
    Around the tanker, whales surfaced or breached or blew mist from their blow holes into umbrella shapes that hung in the air.
    Some whales slept at the surface, unmoving, their dark skin glistening, while others appeared on the water like ghosts. Others cruised on the surface for a few minutes and then dove like submarines, their enormous dark flukes silhouetted against the blue-green water.
    The sleeping whales are perhaps at most risk of being hit. Researchers don't fully know what wakes them or what their reaction will be when they do awaken.
    Six storeys up on the ship's bridge, Irving Eskimo captain Randy Pitts and two crew members also kept a close eye on the water and on the whales.
    Whenever a crew member spotted a whale, he calmly reported it to Capt. Pitts.
    "Whale off the bow," one said.
    "Whale off the starboard side," another reported.
    Capt. Pitts has sailed the Eskimo for four years and has been working on ships on Bay of Fundy waters for more than 22 years. His keen eyes spotted whales others didn't see until the ship drew closer.
    "Look at that," said the captain as a right whale jumped out of the water only 100 feet or so from the ship.
    For half an hour, the huge ship passed through waters filled with whales, perhaps 40 or more, but the Eskimo didn't have to move out of the way of the whales, nor has it ever had to do so, said Capt. Pitts.
    "They've always been far enough off," he said.
    If a whale got in the way, it would be next to impossible for the ship to avoid it. A ship the size of the Eskimo needs a lot of time and space to turn. Even if it could turn away from a whale, there is no guarantee the whale itself wouldn't change course and endanger itself.
    Still Capt. Pitts said there is always someone on the bridge looking out for whales in the bay. He and his crew care about whales, he said, because "this is our home . . . this is our backyard.
    "The guys will spend [spare] time on deck looking for whales. For them, it's something they enjoy."
    There are times when having people on the bridge looking doesn't matter.
    "We can't see the whales at night or in the fog," said Capt. Pitts. "That's all part of sailing on the Bay of Fundy."
    The Eskimo, like other ships, often sails at night because that is when the tides are right. And the Bay of Fundy sees its share of fog.
    Capt. Pitts and his crew know the bay and where the whales are located. Fundy Traffic, the Coast Guard's ship monitoring arm, also lets vessels know when they entering the right whale conservation area.
    But one problem, said Capt. Pitts, is that foreign ships sailing through the bay aren't as familiar with the area.

    More than five miles away on the Nereid, the researchers from the New England Aquarium were floating among a group of whales. They could see the Eskimo approaching.
    Mr. Logan called them on his cellular phone. On the Nereid, researcher Lisa Conger answered, telling Mr. Logan she could see the Eskimo, though the tanker's passengers could not see the smaller vessel.
    Ms. Conger said there were some whales in her area, which was promptly marked on the Eskimo's electronic chart.
    "There were a lot of whales out there," Mr. Logan commented later, shaking his head as he stood on the bridge of the Eskimo. "It's pretty amazing. It's quite a thing to see."
    Mr. Logan estimated that the five Irving tankers pass through the Bay of Fundy a total of 25 times a month. They include the Primrose and the Galloway, two huge supertankers more than twice the size of the Irving Eskimo.
    In 1996 and 1997, Fundy Traffic Control monitored more than 2,800 ship transits on the international shipping lanes in the northern part of the bay. There has been some talk of moving the lanes, but it has not happened yet.
    Capt. Pitts said it's possible, in his opinion, to move part of the shipping lane out of the conservation zone without putting the ships too close to potentially dangerous shoals on the Nova Scotia side of the bay.
    But Mr. Logan feels strongly about the development of an acoustic warning device. He said Irving Oil's interest in the safety of right whales is simple.
    "We use the bay. The whales use the bay."
    The Eskimo surged and rumbled onward. Soon Grand Manan was far astern. Night fell with the tanker just a few hours away from U.S. waters.
    Mr. Logan's second consecutive day of whale watching ended, having added more distant impressions to his first day among the whales - a day that was much more intimate.
   Tomorrow: Reporter Brian Kemp details a day spent with New England Aquarium staff floating among North Atlantic right whales, and describes the development of the acoustic device that may end up saving right whales.