Category Archives: Science

Whale Watching Season Has Begun

Friend and colleague, Carol ‘Krill’ Carson, of New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance has posted a blog to Wicked Local with exciting news about yesterday’s whale watch in Massachusetts Bay.  The boat went out to the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), which has been listed as one of the 10 best whale watching sites on the planet.  Whether they leave from Provincetown, Barnstable, Plymouth, Boston or Gloucester, whale watch companies all motor out to the SBNMS.  Yesterday’s whale watchers got to see six different species of cetacean, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW).

Since regulations call for keeping a distance of 500 yards from the NARW, it’s a rarity to get such a close up look from a whale watch boat. WW boats must stay 100 yards away from all other marine mammal species. So, what all whale watchers hope for is that the whales and dolphins swim up to the boat, so they can all get a close look.

If you’re interested in seeing the NARW up close, you may be better served driving out to Plymouth or Provincetown to view them from the beach. Sometimes they come in quite close, much closer than 500 yards.  The  Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale Facebook page is reporting that 68 North Atlantic right whales were seen in Cape Cod Bay yesterday. That’s the most ever for one day.

On a related note…

We thank NECWA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, NOAA Northeast Regional Office, author/artist Peter Stone and the NBWM High School Apprentices for putting on a great Right Whale Day here at the Museum on Monday, April 15.  It was a great way for nearly 350 people to start their vacation week and learn about the right whale.

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A Huge but Elusive Animal: Tracking Blue Whales in Icy Waters

Researchers from Australia have begun tracking Antarctic blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia) using sonobuoys, satellite tags and biopsy darts. Enduring bitterly cold conditions these individuals are working hard to help us learn more about the Antarctic subspecies of largest animal ever to live on our planet.  This video clip gets the viewer up close to both these enormous animals and to the dedicated people performing this research.  A related story from Reuters News Service provides more information and commentary from the researchers.

Blue whale study done by RIchard Ellis, in preparation for Jacobs Gallery mural. The distinctive throat pleats of all rorquals are clearly visible in this image.  From NBWM collections, 2000.10.

Blue whale study done by RIchard Ellis, in preparation for Jacobs Gallery mural.  From NBWM collections, 2000.10.

Sadly, it is estimated that by the time industrial whalers agreed to stop hunting all blue whales in 1966, only 1% of the original population of approximately 200,000 Antarctic blues remained.  Such was the efficiency of the floating factories that processed the whales brought to them by catcher boats that used cannon-fired harpoons.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Apparently the maxim used as the title for this posting holds true in the whale world as well. A lonely male whale, species unknown, has been roaming the Pacific Ocean for decades in search of a mate.  Unfortunately for him, his voice has too high of a pitch to be heard, or at least understood, by other species of large whale.  Researchers and the Navy have known about this whale, nicknamed 52 Hertz for his vocal frequency, for 24 years. His story has been publicized enough in recent years to inspire sad songs and sad poetry.

So, if you don’t have a date this weekend, don’t feel so badly. At least your unlucky streak hasn’t reached nearly two and a half decades.

Moby-Dick the Reptile

Our Moby-Dick Marathon may be done for 2013, but the influence of the story and its eternally metaphorical whale continue.  A recently discovered species of unpigmented skink, in the island country of Madagascar, is being nicknamed the Moby Dick mermaid skink. However, nicknames / common names, often change from language to language. For example, what we call cod, the Portuguese call bacalhau, the French call morue and the Norwegians call torsk. What doesn’t change is the scientific name. For the cod, that would be Gadus morhua. This new skink will forever have the white whale’s moniker attached to it no matter what language is used. It has been given the scientific name Sirenoscincus mobydick.  I’d like to thank Brandon Walecka for sending this story from Cosmos magazine to us.

This may be the first scientific name to include Moby-Dick. But, it’s not the first to include something from Herman Melville. There is a recently discovered species of fossil (and fearsome) sperm whale that in 2010 was given the name Livyatan melvillei. If you sound out the genus name, you’ll understand why the name was chosen…and that taxonomists have a sense of humor. Case in point, the scientific name for the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. This can translate into muscular winged whale. It can also translate into winged whale mouse.

Act Right Now – Save a Species

The NBWM will host a press conference on Sunday, at noon, in our Cook Memorial Theater to bring attention to an important policy issue affecting the North Atlantic right whale. Please see the text of the media advisory below. The NBWM is happy to be part of this partnership to protect a critically endangered species of whale.

RW skimfeed From RA-SN. Atl. right whale feeding. Photo courtesy of Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC.

MEDIA ADVISORY

Contact: Karen Costa (WDC) karen.costa@whales.org

Cell phone: (617) 501-7892 (current & event day)

ACT RIGHT NOW – Save a Species: North Atlantic Right Whale

News Media are Invited to Cover

            

Who:    Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

         

What:   Campaign launch, expert panel discussion, and video premier – Countdown to Extinction: One Year to Act to Save Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales.  The New Bedford Whaling Museum and Whale and Dolphin Conservation are hosting an open forum to discuss the plight of the North Atlantic right whale.  Join leading scientists and advocates in discussing the threats facing North Atlantic right whales. In addition to an expert panel discussion, curriculum guides for teachers will be available.

 

When:   Sunday December 9, 2012

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

 

Where:  New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA 02740

Why:     Leading right whale scientists and advocates come together to mark the one year countdown to the expiration of the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule and to ask the federal government to keep the rule in place, giving critically endangered North Atlantic right whales a chance to survive. The biggest threat to these animals was – and still is – man. Right whale populations were depleted to near extinction by whaling. With approximately 50 individuals remaining, the North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction with vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements and a lack of adequate habitat protection continuing to threaten their existence. Currently, seventy-two percent of their known mortality is attributed to human causes. Public support to keep the ten knot speed rule in place is needed.

Experts participating and available for interviews include:

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Vessel Strike Program Lead & Executive Director, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)

Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, Director of Right Whale Program, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS)

Dr. Michael Moore,Senior Research Specialist Biology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)

Robert Rocha, Science Director, New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM)

Sharon Young, Marine Issues Field Director, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

In 2008 the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule was enacted requiring vessels greater than 20m (65 feet) in length to slow to 10 knots in specific areas seasonally.  In an unprecedented measure, the National Marine Fisheries Service released the rule with a sunset date and the rule is set to expire on December 9th, 2013. This coming year WDC will lead the way with the Act Right Now campaign to gain public support for stronger and more permanent regulations to ensure that right whales have the best chance to survive the threats they face.  WDC, working in partnership with others, will work to extend and expand protections for North Atlantic right whales to prevent them from going extinct.  Find out what actions members of the public can take to ensure the survival of this fragile species at http://www.whales.org.

Scholarship Opportunity for Student Writers

Here’s an opportunity that I’m excited to share with subscribers to our blog.

High school students with an interest in the coastline and/or the ocean, and in need of a little money for college are encouraged to check out this great opportunity created by concerned parent and Gulf of Maine resident, Linda Cabot. Linda has taken her 64-minute film, From the Bow Seat, and created an essay contest for high school students. Three winners will be chosen. First place will win $2500, second place will win $1500 and third will win $500. In addition, the high school science department of the winner will receive $2500.

The contest requires that participants watch either ‘From the Bow Seat’, or ‘The Right Whale: Urbanizes’ created by Linda’s daughter, Noelle Anderson. After watching the film, you will need to answer questions about the film and submit them to the contest moderators.
The contest runs for the length of the school year. I expect this to be competitive, so start early and get constructive feedback from teachers and peers.

The Gulf of Maine is host to many species of cetacean: North Atlantic right, minke, humpback and fin whales, common and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and harbor porpoises. It’s home to many important commercial fish species such as cod and lobster. It may seem like it’s not right next door to New Bedford, but it has direct connections to our shores and our lives. Please share news of this essay contest with students and teachers that you know.

Right Whales vs Navy Training

Skeleton of North Atlantic right whale fetus, hanging below her mother, in NBWM Jacobs Family Gallery. NBWM photo, taken by Museum apprentices, 2010.

In 2009 the Navy announced plans to construct a 500 square mile warfare training ground for submarines, near the coast of southern Georgia and northern Florida. Normally, this might not be a controversially newsworthy item, since the Navy is charged with protecting our shores. However, the proposed training ground is adjacent to the only known calving grounds of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), or NARW.  Estimates for this species’ population go no higher than 475 animals. Thus, every birth is critical for rebuilding the numbers if they are to avoid extinction.

In 2010, several environmental groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued to stop the project, claiming it was too close to the calving ground and that the activities in the training range would endanger the lives of these animals. Their concerns for moms and newborns mirror the issues facing all right whales – ship strike, entanglement and noise disturbance.  NARWs typically spend their lives within 50 miles of the shore.

Earlier this week a U.S. District Court judge rejected the lawsuit, thus enabling the Navy to continue with its plans to construct their training range. This Associated Press story is one of many that explain the ruling.  SELC and their partners will review the judge’s decision before deciding on their next step.

If this project does happen, it will be very closely monitored by those seeking to protect the North Atlantic right whale, by other environmental groups and by our military.

Following William Bradford to the Frozen North

Counting the hours until launch. In a couple days I’ll be  one of a small group heading to  Greenland as we retrace William Bradford’s final Arctic voyage one hundred and forty-three years later. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, in April of 2013, will be republishing a modern edition of Bradford’s Arctic Regions in conjunction with our upcoming exhibit  Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island.

The Chasing the Light voyage was first envisioned a few years ago by Rena Bass Forman (1954-2011). At that time it seemed to me more a dream than opportunity to be taken. Instead, through the generosity of private donors and with careful planning this dream is now a reality. As artist and photographer Rena was inspired by Bradford’s work, but more specifically the photography incorporated within Arctic Regions as executed by Boston photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson.

Castle Berg in Melville Bay over two hundred feet high.

Their photographs were the first taken in the high Arctic. At that time the theory of an Ice Age was still new, and the concept of an open Polar Sea was popular, though not proven. This perspective sits in contrast to our knowledge today; and to the discussion revolving around natural and manmade climate change; and the fact that Polar Sea is now opening up.  Then, like today, the public was hungry for news about ice, glaciers, and survival in one of the most remote regions of our planet.

Our Arctic Visions: Away then Float the Ice Island exhibit will run for two years. Adjacent to it we will feature a series of contemporary exhibits that will relate to the parallel narratives Bradford and fellow voyager and Arctic Explorer Isaac Israel Hayes developed. We will open this series with Rena Bass Forman’s exhibit also named Chasing the Light.

Our group of eleven voyagers includes: artists, explorers, photographers, filmmaker, teacher, polar guides, and curator. We hold to our core a thirst to explore and create, passed to us most recently from Rena, and through the centuries from Bradford and like-minded artists.

Engage with the developing exhibits and programming process via our Department of Digital Initiatives wiki. There you will find resources including an extensive reading list including a link to the draft transcription of Arctic Regions.

My role at the Museum, in addition to being Photography Curator, is as Director of the Department of Digital Initiatives.  I am, we are fully immersed within the “digital stream”. Follow William Bradford and Isaac Israel Hayes’s narratives via twitter, get voyage updates through Facebook and this blog, and upon our return and before the end of September catch the launch of our project-based microsite.

The Chasing the Light voyage will be carrying flags from The Explorers ClubThe Royal Canadian Geographic SocietyWings WorldQuest, and The New Bedford Whaling Museum.