April 1st 2014
Could This Be The Start of The End of Commercial Whaling?

Posted under news

It might be finally happening. The tipping point may have arrived which leads to the end of commercial whaling.

For decades, Japan has been sending a fleet of whaling ships to Antarctic waters in the hunt for minke, fin, and humpback whales. Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission BUT, an exception was put into the ruling to cover scientific study. Japan has taken full advantage of this loophole despite a lack of resulting peer-reviewed scientific papers or substantial knowledge and conclusions about whales. Plus, the ‘research’ serves merely as a very thin guise for meat from the whales they have killed to wind up in markets all over Japan, despite a declining taste for it, and freezers full of hundreds of tons of stockpiled whale meat. Their policy basically comes down to ‘let’s kill whales to see how many whales are overabundantly available to kill, and while we’re at it, we’ll just eat them, too.’ (This assumption about minke whale populations has actually been disproved by actual science conducted at Stanford.) Japan even introduced whale meat into school lunches in an attempt to expand younger tastes and renew a market for consumption. (Please read that linked article – Whale meat back on school lunch menus -  so much revealing stuff in a fairly short read.)

Breaching minke whale. Sept 2007 Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Breaching minke whale. Sept 2007
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

There is no humane way to kill a whale. It can take half an hour or more for a harpooned whale to die. Since the meat is not necessary for human survival, the additional notion that any animal is subjected to such a horrific end to feed a fading appetite adds another level of nonsens to this whole program.

Their program has been losing money for years. The country has even diverted funds intended to help with tsunami recovery in order to help prop up the whaling program. There have been calls from around the world to end it, but Japan has resisted. I once asked Bill Clinton (while he was campaigning for Hillary in 2007) about bringing pressure to bear on Japan to end whaling. His response was that this was the one topic on which Japan was truly defensive. Japan has claimed both cultural tradition and national pride for continuing on despite diminishing returns.

Australia finally threw down the gauntlet and took Japan to the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ). In a suit filed in 2010, Australia called out the illusion of lethal scientific research being conducted at least partly in an established sanctuary.

Yesterday, the ICJ ruled against Japan’s ‘research’ whaling. The court agreed with Australia that the science program was a sham, and that Japan needed to revoke all permits and not issue new ones for any future Antarctic based whaling. Japan has initially said it will abide by the ruling and cease Antarctic whaling operation. As much as it has relied on arguments for its historical connection to whaling and disliking outside pressure to end it, the combination of factors working against the program could mean that this ruling would be a simple, perhaps even a bit of a graceful, way to bow out from that hunt.

What this does NOT change is Japan’s coastal whaling, which includes the annual dolphin drives into the killing coves of Taiji. It also does not address large whale commercial whaling operations in Norway and Iceland. And, Japan could pull an about face and decide to leave the IWC altogether, which would remove it from accountability to the ICJ. In the meantime, this decision is a monumental step forward towards ending commercial whaling for good.

For a clear summary of what this ruling means, check out this post from Southern Fried Science – Explainer: An end to Japan’s “scientific whaling” program in Antartica. I am pleased and humbled to have been able to contribute a little something to the post. Thanks, David Shiffman!

An additional note… While their methods have been controversial, I think we also owe a debt of gratitude to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Their tireless and often deeply risky pursuit of confronting the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic has ensured that the world knew what was happening down there, and has helped to prevent hundreds of additional large whale deaths.

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October 8th 2012
Finally Out On The Water Again!

Posted under whale watches

Well now, this site has gotten a little dusty, eh? I still have photos to post from May, but I have not been out on the water since then, until this past weekend. It was a busy summer, and gas prices kept my travelling rather sparse. It was tough to read updates and see photos on Facebook of friends who were getting out all season. I was afraid I was not going to make it out again.

Luckily, a friend offered to treat me for a trip for my birthday so I have been able to squeeze in one more, possibly last, trip for the 2012 season. This friend and two others joined me for the excursion, a first whale watch for all of them. I was delighted to take them out but I always get a little worried that we won’t have a good trip and it will disappoint the newbies.

I needn’t have thought much about it. We went out from the New England Aquarium because their schedule fit better for events happening later in our day. Sadly, I don’t think I will get to Gloucester once this year, which is just wrong! We had a beautiful day to be out on the water, and lots of other people thought so, too. Once again, we were on a fairly crowded boat but it was mostly ok. Everyone seemed to be able to get to the rail. I do still wish that the company which runs these trips (which, as I understand it, is not the Aquarium itself) didn’t load the boat quite so full.

Took us a while, and a ride pretty much due east from Boston Harbor, to reach any activity out on Stellwagen Bank. We wound up around the northeast corner. The horizon was dotted with some fishing and pleasure boats, but no blows could be seen. And then, suddenly, there was a splashing nearby. Etch-A-Sketch had popped up with some tail breaching and lob tailing. We got a fairly close look at her while she was being active, close enough also to see the satellite tag still on her left side beneath the dorsal (observed in May, too). As she was being active, a couple of other humpbacks moved into the area, Nile and Valley. They were mostly logging and doing shallow dives, but we got some good looks at the dorsals and flukes. As we were preparing to head back into Boston, a third humpback joined Nile’s and Valley’s association, but we were not able to stick around long enough to see its flukes. I can say is it was a smaller humpback, but not much else. Did get a dorsal fin shot.

Got a few photos, which are posted in the gallery. My friends and I had a terrific visit and a nice day on the water. I was also delighted that our naturalist on the trip, Heidi, seemed to be very experienced. I find it to be hit or miss on the Aquarium trips as to whether or not you get someone who really works in and is well versed in the field and animals, so this was a nice bonus.

Maybe I will get lucky and squeeze in one more trip. If not, the winter will be about saving up and planning for many more trips in 2013. Six trips are not nearly enough, especially months apart!

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May 31st 2012
2012 Whale Watching Season Kick Off!

Posted under whale watches

I am a little late in making this post. I went out on my first trip of the year on May 6, from the New England Aquarium. Rather quiet day that day. Our only sighting was Pisces and her calf, as well as a grey seal.

Over this past Memorial Day weekend, I went out on four trips with the Dolphin Fleet out of Provincetown MA. While 3 of the 4 days were somewhat foggy, it was an incredible weekend all around for surface activity. We pretty much saw everything: open mouth surface feeding, deep feeding, breaching, tail breaching, lob tailing, flipper slapping. I am going to write at more length about the trips in a future post, once I have the 1500+ photos sorted and edited down. But, for now, I am going to share here a video I shot on my iPhone 4, of Sanchal flipper slapping *right* next to the boat on Tuesday, May 29.

This was my first time attempting to do such a thing. I had a tight grip on the phone (mostly held vertically) in my left hand, and was attempting to continue to take photos with my right hand on the DSLR. Hindsight being what it is, I should have held the photo sideways for a more complete frame. But I am still fairly pleased with the quality, all things considered.

Enjoy, and watch for more from this weekend, including photos.

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April 22nd 2012
Happy Earth Day!

Posted under misc

Can’t believe how much time has passed since my last blog post. Life has been busy! So, it is fitting that I slow down today for just long enough to tip my hat to Mother Earth. My favorite Earth Day to date was a few years ago when I decided to go on a whale watch through the New England Aquarium. It was a cool and cloudy day but we got to see some North Atlantic right whales! (From a safe distance, of course). My one disappointment that day is that the naturalist only mentioned it’s being Earth Day once, as we were arriving back at the dock (and that was after I said something to them). What a wasted educational opportunity! Still, it was a great, inspiring day on the water, though I am also cognizant of the contradiction of spending Earth Day on a boat burning fossil fuels.

Earth Day is like New Year’s for me – a time to take stock and to set goals. I am not a perfect resident of this planet, but my goals for this year are to continue to find ways to reduce my use of plastic from the start, urge others in my family to do more recycling, keep on top of news and share what I learn so that hopefully others can also be better residents of this planet. There remains so much to do in order to be better stewards of our host!

She’s in pretty rough shape right now. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is still contributing to deformation and loss of sea life and health problems for people on the Gulf Coast. Renewable energy initiatives continue to be fought against by fossil fuel champions. There are ongoing concerns of the nuclear impact from the reactor meltdowns in Japan. Overfishing is still a major problem around the globe. Bees continue to die because of a pesticide which the government is being frightfully slow to ban, and this WILL affect our food supply. This is just a very very short list of problems we face.

So, yeah, we’ve got some problems. Marking Earth Day is a great reminder that we have just this one planet to sustain us. And it is up to US to take care of her.

I won’t be going out on a whale watch today (though hopefully soon! The season has started up here in the Northeast US). I will be spending time listening to one of my favorite songwriters, Carrie Newcomer. With her unique sense of place, description, and spirit, Carrie is teaching a creative writing workshop this afternoon and doing a concert tonight. It will be a perfectly lovely and inspiring way to spend this Earth Day!

Wherever you may be, I hope you can find a way to mark the day in the way that makes the best sense to you. Here’s to our Earth – may she have many more years ahead of her!

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March 30th 2012
Save the Arctic

Posted under news

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.

It seems fitting for this post to follow my review of Big Miracle, the film account of the rescue of three grey whales off Barrow, Alaska, up above the Arctic Circle. The conditions portrayed in the film were harsh, incredibly cold, and unrelenting. Once the ice starts and thickens, it’s there for the long haul. Getting through it or away from it is extremely difficult. And anyone who has ever watched one of those extreme fishing shows, like Deadliest Catch, knows how violent, unpredictable, and quickly changing the conditions can be in open water.

So why, then, is Shell leading the charge to do offshore drilling up in that part of the world? And why are we still clinging so tightly to oil/fossil fuels that we choose to turn our eyes away and just let it happen, rather than rising up en masse and demanding clean/green energy developments that can save our planet now, before it is too late?

Greenpeace New Zealand protestors on the Noble Discoverer drilling ship

Fortunately, not everyone is sitting still for it. Recently, seven activists from Greenpeace New Zealand, including actress Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus), scaled a 53 meter tower on the Noble Discoverer, a drilling ship in port in New Zealand but scheduled to head up to the Arctic to do exploratory off shore drilling, hired by Shell. The GNZ occupiers had enough supplies to last about a week, and determination to stick it out for as long as possible. And, largely thanks to Lucy, they attracted worldwide attention to a ship and a mission that would likely never have made a blip on the radar outside of New Zealand. Continue Reading »

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February 28th 2012
Big Miracle

Posted under media

John Krasinksi and Drew Barrymore in Big Miracle

I laughed, I cried, I loved it!

I finally had a chance to take in Big Miracle. This required a trip to Boston since none of the theaters in my local area opted to show the film. I’ve been following along with reviews and articles about both the film and original events, so had an idea what to expect. All the same, I had a strong emotional response to the movie. And I don’t hesitate to recommend it to others.

The brief summary: three grey whales find themselves trapped by ice miles from open water, unable to hold their breath long enough to get out from under the ice cover. Discovered by chance, their plight grows into a story that held the world’s attention until a solution was found to help them gain their freedom.

Part of my following the media around the film has included following Cindy Lowry – the inspiration for Drew Barrymore’s character – on Twitter. It’s rather cool, I think, to be able to interact with a principal person in a story as that story finds renewed publicity. One of the many articles she tweeted was from Alaska Daily News, ‘Big Miracle: The Real Story.’ An account from someone who was present for much of the story as it unfolded, it provides a contrast between what actually happened and the story rendered on the big screen.

What’s interesting to me  in that article is what’s reported as happening just after the whales were discovered. Initial response was not as portrayed on screen. There was no immediate mad dash to save them. After all, natural mortality happens all the time. Nature is not a gentle place, and there are always casualties. All manner of creatures, marine and land alike, will die for a myriad of reasons. It’s just how things go. Add the extreme conditions in which these whales were located, and it’s not like rescuing a bag of puppies dumped by the side of the road. So the start of this was not ramped up, as seen on the big screen. Had those whales not been spotted purely by chance, their loss would likely have been both inevitable and never registered on any human radar.

And yet they did register, and before long, multiple players overcame long odds and fundamental philosophical differences to work towards the best possible outcome. In a cosmic sense, this was a unifying event in many ways, bringing together environmentalists and oilers, conflicting governments, the Inupiat and non-native people. And while not all of the whales could be saved, it also worked to shine a spotlight into a remote wilderness. Can that be bad? It is true that lots and LOTS of money was spent in the effort, but it seems that the awareness and creation of new bridges was worth it, from my armchair perspective. We cannot save all of the whales who get trapped under ice, but we can learn about ourselves and our priorities when we do try. And we learn more about the whales, which is never a bad thing in my mind.

I’ve picked up the re-issue of the book on which the movie was based, Big Miracle by Tom Rose (formerly titled Freeing the Whales) so am curious to read the more detailed account. If anyone has any other reading to recommend from this event, please let me know!

See the film if you can. Might not be in theaters for long, but the DVD will be worth watching as well once it comes out. I’m planning to add it to my own library.

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February 4th 2012
Cyamids = whale lice and we have a winner!

Posted under misc

Many thanks to those who visited and commented for an entry into the giveaway. I know the question was a pretty easy one, but I felt an easy question was better warranted :-)

And our winner is: Jill! Congratulations, and I will be in touch with you by email.

Hoping to get a chance to see the film soon, myself. None of my local theaters are showing it (the perils of living in a rural area) but I’ll find a theater somewhere!

Hope everyone has a great weekend, and thanks again for playing.

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February 1st 2012
Big Miracle, Starring Grey Whales – and a Giveaway!

Posted under misc

Big Miracle - a film about grey whalesOn February 3 here in the United States, the film Big Miracle is opening in screens across the nation. The TV ads will tell you that the stars of the film, which is based on a true story, are Drew Barrymore and Jon Krasinksi (as well as Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ted Danson). And I am sure they will be quite enjoyable to watch, but I’ll be watching for the whales.

We all know how charismatic and popular some whales are – especially humpbacks, orcas and just about all dolphins – but grey whales are sort of the second cousin. People know they are there, especially along the west coast of the US where there is a seasonal whale watch industry that’s just as interested in greys as other cetaceans, but how much do people really know in general? A couple of quick facts… There used to be grey whales in the Atlantic but they were hunted to extinction. One of the most critically endangered populations of whales in the world, the Western Pacific greys, are a group numbering around 130. They summer off the the Russian island of Sakhalin, near the northern end of Japan, where oil and gas exploration is strongly impacting their main feeding ground. One whale from that population has proven to be quite a traveler, having been tracked across the Bering Sea and down towards the coast of Oregon. Then there’s the grey whale that mysteriously turned up in the Mediterranean a couple of years ago. Continue Reading »

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January 13th 2012
Let’s Talk About Sharks

Posted under misc

I admit it, I have not necessarily always been a big shark fan. That had largely been a result of lack of information and awareness. My personal experiences with sharks are mostly limited to things like seeing a basking shark on a whale watch some years ago, and the new touch tank at the New England Aquarium (they feel like very very fine and slightly slimy sand paper). Turns out, sharks are pretty awesome. They are the apex predators of our oceans, keeping ecosystems in check. Yeah, they scare people (thanks, Jaws!) but toasters kill more people than sharks. That’s right – toasters.

And sharks are facing incredible peril in the oceans right now. The link above talks about how a handful of people are killed by sharks in an average year. Conversely, humans and human activity take the lives of over 70 MILLION sharks each year.

The primary cause is the deplorable act of shark finning, where live sharks are pulled aboard a boat, their fins are cut off, and their still living bodies are dumped back in the ocean where they are sentenced to die either by predators or drowning. Without their fins they cannot swim, and because they cannot swim, their gills are unable to extract oxygen from the water. This is about as undignified a death as any animal could suffer. And for what are their fins used? Soup. Time Magazine had an article called Extinction in a Bowl of Shark Fin Soup which talks about the high price to the consumer (at least $100 per bowl) and ultimately to all of us as sharks are killed and ocean ecosystems worldwide are critically altered as a result. Continue Reading »

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December 11th 2011
Sea Turtles! Akumal, Mexico

Posted under misc

I am still way behind on whale related posts – last whale watch of my 2011 season was in early August – not to mention overdue photo galleries. But today, I want to talk about something completely different: sea turtles!

In mid-November, I had the good fortune of taking a short cruise with one of my favorite bands, Eddie From Ohio. We were, the lot of us, a little pocket of people on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas and we had the best of both worlds. We got private concerts from a terrific folk rock band, and also got to utilize all that the ship had to offer. This included excursions for our one day at port, in Cozumel. I had spent some time looking at the excursion possibilities before going on the trip. While there were many intriguing choices, the one that kept simmering in the back of my mind was the Sea Turtle Snorkel. Still, I didn’t want to make any decisions until on board the cruise ship, to see what other Edheads might be doing. In the end, the opportunity to do something I would not be able to do here at home won out and I booked the excursion very early during the cruise.

The whole excursion was something of an adventure: we were off the cruise ship by 8 AM, onto a ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland. This led to about 30-40 minutes of a very rough ride (luckily, I don’t get sea sick). From there, our tour guide/naturalist, Jorge of Wild Tours, led us to a bus for another 30 minute ride to our destination, Akumal (Mayan for Place of the Turtles). Along the way, he pointed out a large eagle’s nest atop a roadside electrical tower. Alas, the birds did not appear to be in residence at that moment.

At the end of our drive, our van turned down a narrow, tree lined road. Its condition was so rough that, while paved, we moved at about 3 miles per hour and very carefully over potholes, hugging the tree line. After a brief stop at a guard post, we drove into the parking lot of a facility that appeared both well maintained and completely deserted. Where *were* we? The grounds were gorgeous, full of lush green trees and plants, and the building we entered was in very nice shape though not another soul could be seen. We stopped in a room full of tables and chairs, but no lockers. Jorge assured us that all of our stuff was safe and we could leave it there (he was right). He handed out our snorkels, masks, and flippers, told us how to adjust the straps to put everything on, and then showed us the hand signals he would use in the water to indicate when a turtle had been spotted. I was the only one in our small group of 5 (including a couple from Ft. Lauderdale and a couple from Wales) who had never really been snorkeling before.

Akumal, Mexico - The Place of the TurtlesTime to hit the water! We left our empty building, and wow! We emerged onto a long, beautiful white sand beach, complete with lounge chairs, a small snorkel shop/hut, and people all over the place. Given how deserted the building seemed to be, I was not expecting this at all. It was like we had stepped right into the pages of one of those vacation brochures that shows the impeccable beaches, impossibly blue skies and warm, turquoise waters.

Jorge had explained to us that this is one of the few places in the world where sea turtles can be found all year. Protected by a barrier reef, turtles come into Akumal just about every day to eat sea grasses and jelly fish in the shallow bay. After donning our gear, we backed up into the water and away we went. It took me a few minutes to get past over-focusing on breathing through my mouth, and then having to swap masks with Jorge since I could not see anything (thanks again, Jorge!) and hey! Turtles! I was amazed at how quickly we started to find them, and how relatively close to the beach we always were. We spent about 45 minutes in the water, and all told saw probably 8-10 turtles, mostly adult females and also one younger turtle (smaller than the rest). Several turtles had remora fish on or under their shells also. One turtle wasn’t so keen on all of us water tourists so swam away, but the rest were pretty comfortable just ignoring us and going about their business. My most exciting moment came when one of the turtles came up for air and literally came within inches of touching me as she passed by. It doesn’t really work to try to back pedal with swimming fins, but I tried my best to stay out of her way, not thinking just to be still and give her enough credit for knowing full well how to avoid me. I was definitely caught up in the moment. Several times, Jorge went deeper into the water and waggled his fingers in front of some turtles and one southern stingray that we saw because that will sometimes prompt them to move around a little. They pretty much ignored him completely (and he was very careful never to make contact with them or harass them. If they didn’t react, he let them be.)

Loggerhead turtle in Akumal, Mexico.Jorge then led us over to a small reef area, and tried to find a barracuda for us. No luck there, but I loved feeling like I was swimming through a National Geographic program, watching various fish in a wide array of colors swimming around. The water in the bay is relatively shallow, and the one anxious moment here was passing rather closely over a taller section of reef. I stopped kicking and just did a breaststroke to move past that point. The largest fish we saw was a puffer fish (un-puffed).

Too quickly, our time in the water was through. The couple from Ft. Lauderdale had their own gear so went back in the water for a while which made me a little envious. I should have checked the gear shack right on the beach, but I was feeling like I had been spendy enough for the day so wandered around instead. I was glad I had decided not only to splurge on the excursion but also to pay onboard ship premium prices for disposable waterproof cameras (it wasn’t enough that I was a gawky American tourist in Mexico, but I also had to be a gawky American tourist in the water, with two of those things dangling from my wrists). Wish I had listened to my friend, Susan, with whom I had dinner the night before the cruise in Ft. Lauderdale, when she offered to take me to Walgreen’s to get a couple of cameras. While the photos I got with them were far below Brian Skerry or Flip Nicklin caliber (get their new books, Ocean Soul and Among Giants, respectively. Seriously – AMAZING), I am glad I had something with me. Naturally, I am eager now to recreate the experience but with a better camera. Where’s that winning lottery ticket??

After a couple of hours relaxing on the beach, and lunch at a burger shack nearby, we climbed back into the van to head back to Playa del Carmen. Coming from New England where late fall was deeply in place and our world was increasingly brown and dreary, it was nice to see all of the lush vegetation, and also sobering to see the wide range of quality of living quarters we passed on the road. Poverty was easily evident, and I was reminded of just how very fortunate I was to have this experience at all. We also were able to catch a glimpse of activity in the eagle’s nest on the return trip. After getting drenched in rain in the short walk from the covered dock to the ferry, it was nice to sit and reflect on the day. Being a big music fan, having the right tunes with which to think helps a lot. I listened to Carrie Newcomer‘s “Everything is Everywhere” on that ferry ride, and it was the perfect soundtrack for my thoughts. We were dropped off “downtown” (as opposed to the ship’s pier from where we started). I made the valiant effort to walk back to the ship and got maybe 75% of the way back before my feet gave out and I finally hailed a cab (I had been walking for over an hour at that point). Along the way, I saw a crab on a waterside bench, probably washed there by waves crashing up against the sea wall. Tried to figure out a way to flick it back into the water, but it was having none of that, skittering away on the bench any time I got close. It was a little comical, really.

According to Jorge, we saw mostly loggerhead turtles, but possibly also one green turtle. I tried to see if I could glean the distinctions from my photos but I am just not accustomed to photo IDs of turtles at this point, especially from fair quality photos taken with disposable cameras. We also saw a southern sting ray and a skate I can’t quite identify. I am grateful to Jorge for being a funny, well informed and terrific guide/naturalist, my fellow snorkelers for good company, and the turtles themselves, for being so naturally awesome.

You can learn more about efforts to protect the bay and its marine visitors by visiting the website for Centro Ecológical Akumal (site is in English).

And feel free to check out the photos I did get, keeping in mind the ‘equipment’ I was using. Might not have been high end, but it was better than nothing!

Over the course of the whole cruise weekend, I saw pelicans, fish, crabs, a reef and turtles. This has lead to a strong desire to watch “Finding Nemo” again.

Duuuuuuuuuude. Turtles rock.

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