August 5th 2011
Six Whale Watches, One Update!

Posted under whale watches

This won’t be as long a post as the title might have you think. While I have indeed been out on 6 trips now, the first four were not terribly newsworthy.

Bayou on Stellwagen Bank, 28 May 2011My season kicked off, as it often does, in Provincetown over Memorial Day Weekend. I did three trips over as many days with the Dolphin Fleet. While whale activity had been pretty good in the month leading up, a big nor’easter off the coast a bit before the weekend seemed to have moved much of the activity quite a ways off shore. We also had a fair bit of fog that weekend which made things a little challenging. Notable sighting of the weekend was Bayou, the 2006 calf of Trident. Bayou now sports a damaged right fluke from a propellor injury, making it an easy fluke to ID. I saw Bayou as a calf but didn’t know until this trip about the injury.

Next trip, July 1, on Yankee Fleet out of Gloucester. We went north to Jeffreys Ledge where there had been reports of a fair amount of activity. We didn’t find any of that on this day, and spent time with some fin whales instead. While they tend to be notoriously hard to watch because they move quickly and don’t ‘do’ as much at the surface, we did get some good looks.

Things finally got exciting on July 16. I did two trips out of Gloucester that day, the first on Cape Ann Whale Watch (with naturalists from Ocean Alliance) thanks to a Groupon and the second on Capt Bill and Sons (naturalists from the Whale Center of New England). The big action is down off Provincetown right now, so that’s where both trips went. True to form for whale watching, each trip was quite different while also being quite good.

In the morning on Cape Ann WW, we spent most of our trip with a couple of  juvenile humpbacks who pretty much mugged the boat. We were unable to move for about 45 minutes because they were hanging out right under the back end of the boat. Not that we minded – we were getting great looks! Got my first close up photo of a whale’s eye (too bad the eye was closed) and Greenbean, one of the juvies, made a point of splashing the boat with its flukes from only about 20-30 feet away, if that.

Later that same day on Captain Bill’s, we returned to the SE corner of Stellwagen. Didn’t see any of the same whales from the morning, but we did have some active adults, including Echo and Tectonic traveling togeher. They seem to be one of Stellwagen’s great enduring ‘friendships’, coming together often over the years like Salt and Cardhu are known to do. Leah, the naturalist, reported that National Geographic had worked with the Whale Center to attach a critter cam to Echo and the resulting footage showed her and Tectonic (a male) working very well together under water in their hunt for food. Echo treated us to a breach too, which I managed to catch (even if distantly).  Other whales we found on this trip included Pele, Alphorn, Jabiru and Sloop.

Photos coming soon, I promise, as well as another post about a trip on 3 August.

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March 3rd 2011
The Song of the Loneliest Whale

Posted under news

In the last few days, I have seen several stories posted about what’s being called the world’s loneliest whale. The story, first out in 2004 from New Scientist and also covered by Andrew Rivkin at the New York Times, concerns a whale call first heard in 1989 and tracked since 1992. Theories abound about this whale. It seems that no one has seen it, or at least seen it in conjunction with its calls so that they can be conclusively connected, so its species is unknown.

What’s so different about this whale’s song? Different species of whales make sounds or calls within their own range of frequencies. Fin whales’ calls are at about 20 hz. Blue whales, the largest mammals ever, call out in the 10 – 20 hertz range. Most of us have heard the haunting sounds of humpback whales, initially made famous by recordings made by Roger Payne. Those fall in the 30 hertz to 8 kilohertz range.

This unknown whale calls out at 52 hertz. Think lowest note on a tuba. Sounds pretty low, right? But if you listen to the clip here at NOAA. It’s quite different from other recorded whale sounds (you can hear samples of several whale calls on Wikipedia.) It’s comparatively a fairly high sound.

There is much speculation about its origins and being lonely, unable to be heard and therefore find mates (or even ‘colleagues’?). Its migrations and travels are unlike other known whales. None of the stories mention if the calls have ever been heard in the vicinity of other active whale calls so it’s impossible to know if this whale has ever met another whale (aside from its mother), given how vast the oceans are. Perhaps somewhat ironically, that this whale has been heard at all is thanks to the US Navy’s hydrophone arrays, installed to track enemy submarines. Declassified recordings allowed the discovery of this solitary whale, as well as information about known species like blue and fin whales.

As a human with a hearing loss, which results in my interactions with the world being somewhat different from most, I kinda wish I could just go give this whale a hug. And since whales are primarily acoustic animals and not visual, not being able to interact in this primary fashion is not a good thing. Whether or not this singular whale hears any others would be a fascinating question to answer, but I’d guess that if it could hear others, it might seek them out. I’m not finding any reports that this has happened, at least not when .

What bothers me about most, if not all, of the stories I have seen about this whale is the constant comment that it sings at the ‘wrong’ frequency. Without knowing anything about this whale aside from the sounds it makes, wrong seems to be overstating things a bit dramatically. Better, I think, to call it a unique frequency, one never heard before by our ears (and apparently the ears of other whales currently swimming about in the Pacific Ocean).

This is just another example of the many mysteries still held by our oceans. Let’s hope we have time to understand them before we kill the oceans altogether.

(This post was greatly aided by stories posted by Gizmodo, Kur5hin, and Good.)


February 28th 2011
Returning with Sort of Good News

Posted under news

Well! I can’t believe I haven’t updated this blog in so long. My apologies. Quick run down of last summer: 8 whale watches taken. I have photos and will try to get them up before the 2011 season kicks off. Now that I finally have a digital camera, that means lots more to sort :-)

So, good news? Sort of! Let’s start with the news that Japan has ended its Antarctic whaling season early this year! They are, of course, blaming Sea Shepherd for keeping their quota of 1000 whales down to less than 200. And yes, there have been clashes (no injuries reported). But there’s also been mounting international pressure which has to be making an impact. Not to mention the fact that there is something like 5000 tons of whale meat sitting in freezers already because the population just is not eating it.

What almost made me laugh for its ludicrously blatant chess puffing is an editorial from Japan about the end of the Antarctic season. The most telling line in it is this, at the end: “And we tend to react with anger when foreign countries tell us we shouldn’t eat it.” The editorial acknowledges foreign pressure. It also acknowledges the lack of stomach for the meat: “Demand for whale meat is not growing at all in Japan, and the nation’s ocean-going whaling industry is effectively dead. Given this reality, there is little justification for Japan’s stated need to resume commercial whaling in the Antarctic.”

And yet, the crux of it all comes down to the defensiveness of the “don’t tell us what to eat” position. They refer to whales as “utilizable resources” (using the quotation marks themselves) as opposed to the intelligent marine mammals that most of the rest of the world sees them as, seeking their protection. If Japan had no other resources for food, zero other means for feeding their population, that position might hold more credibility. It does not. I get not wanting to be told what to eat. But this is larger than that. This is their refusal to actually learn anything from their so-called scientific research aside from, theoretically, how many whales they can kill without devastating the populations, much less learning from the massive and growing bodies of research from around the world which bolster the many reasons why whales should be protected and not eaten.

Why is this all only sort of good news? There has been no permanent cessation of commercial whaling by Japan (not to mention Iceland and Norway). There is still the vicious dolphin hunting that occurs every year in Taiji, Japan. Whaling for this year might be over (including an early end to the dolphin slaughter), but the matter is still unresolved. I wish we could find a way to help Japan end these programs while also allowing it to save face culturally as it appears to desperately want. That would be a win on all sides.

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June 15th 2010
To Save or Not To Save the Whales

Posted under news

It seems somewhat unfathomable to me that here in 2010, this is still an open question! Yet, on the eve of what will be a critical meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Morocco beginning on June 21, the fate of whales still hangs in the balance.

One thing that is maddening about this proposed compromise process is that in the last few days, numerous stories have been published that all undermine Japan’s thin veneer of legitimacy. First, there’s the whaler who has stepped forward to talk in detail, from first hand knowledge, about the pilfering and reselling of whale meat. There are the reports that Japan is bribing countries to vote with them, using not only money but entirely false arguments about the impact of (re)growing whale populations. And now, there is a story about new research – not into learning about whales but to find new ‘applications’ for whales’ bodies.

And still I wonder – are these stories too late? Will there be enough momentum against sanctioned commercial whaling to make a difference? How deeply entrenched and backwards are the politics at the IWC?

South Korea has indicated that if commercial whaling is restored for Japan, Norway and Iceland, it will also start to issue whaling permits. I think it is folly to think that this can truly be a controlled return to sanctioned whaling.  It cannot wind up with a reduction in whale catch if other countries start killing whales as well. And while Japan is the most visible villain in this battle, this compromise also involves Norway and Iceland, whose combined whaling catch exceed Japan’s.

Meanwhile new and legitimate research is producing stories all the time about whales, including a recent story about long term ‘friendships’ formed by humpback whales. A simple Google search on whale-human encounters will yield seemingly countless anecdotes which only bolster the growing theories of intelligence, sentience, and community amongst whales. These are not simple fish. There is no humane way to kill a whale. This should not even be a subject of debate any longer!

Oh and I want to add – as this was pointed out to me today by the fine folks at the Whale Center of New England – this proposed compromise does NOT guarantee an end to whaling in 10 years. It merely attempts to add limits to catches over the next decade. Once that decade concludes, we could well be back at the drawing board and having to fight from scratch to end whaling. Again.

So what do we do? I have sent more than one message to Obama at the White House (the guy who promised to end whaling). I will send another. Wherever you live, regardless of how your government stands on the issue, tell them you are against whaling. If your government is against whaling, the reinforcement that this is the right position is important. If it supports whaling, it needs to hear opposition.

As I said, the IWC meeting starts on June 21. There are multiple avenues for tracking new from it: IWCblogger, the IWC itself, even through a Japanese site (which could be painful yet interesting for an alternate perspective). WCDS also has a Twitter feed, AllEyesonIWC, which will have information about the meeting.

I’m on the edge of my seat!

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May 9th 2010
Stopping the slaughter – what can we do?

Posted under misc & news

I’ve been hearing from several friends that they are also frustrated with the current state of whaling affairs, and want to know how to help. So this post is designed to suggest some actions we can all take. It will not be exhaustive, but hopefully will prove to be a useful starting place.

There are three things that are bringing attention to these matters to the fore: the death of the SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, the recent Small Group meeting of the International Whaling Commission to discuss a fundamental shift in whaling (basically going from “banned” to permitted commercial whaling), and the Oscar win for Best Documentary to The Cove (congrats to all involved in that film!).

What can we do, those of us who are not working for marine organizations or right on the front lines?

At the moment, the most urgent thing we can do is to contact our government representatives. There is a serious effort being made to create a plan that allows for some commercial whaling towards the goal of ending all commercial whaling. The US is one of the countries working on this – it is critically important to increase public pressure to say that this is NOT acceptable. Killing whales on a commercial level needs to end, period.  This proposed compromise simply rewards Japan, Norway and Iceland – who have been flouting the ban on whaling for decades and even increased their kill numbers – by given them legitimacy without an enforceable way to ensure that the killing DOES end. Meanwhile, thousands more whales will suffer inhumane deaths. President Obama has promised not to allow whaling – contact the White House and make sure he does not become the president who DID move towards killing whales.

In the case of The Cove, which works to expose the slaughter of thousands of dolphins in Japan, you can send the text DOLPHIN to 44144. Be aware that this will place you on a text alerts list (from which you can easily opt out) and will be subject whatever text charges you have on your cell plan.

Stay up on the news. If you’re on Twitter, there are loads of marine, whale and conservation groups you can follow which post stories and developments. For ideas of some, check my follow lists for oceans, whales, and green/nature. You do not have to be on Twitter to see what people are saying, and you can often find websites for organizations by clicking on their @ nicknames to reach their individual pages.

Greenpeace is another organization that posts current news and offers e-petitions that can be signed and shared. These e-petitions do NOT replace direct individual contact from us to our representatives. Individual letters still hold more weight.

I keep a list here on the blog of whale research and conservation orgs. Again, it is not comprehensive but is a good start. Go to their sites, read up on their work, and support them however you can.

In the end, there are  countless matters of concern for ocean conservation: ending shark finning, establishing marine parks, ending destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling and long lining, cleaning up pollution. There are countless organizations involved in many of these causes. Use the web – find out who is working on the issues that matter to you most, and get involved. All it takes is one voice to get the ball started.

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February 25th 2010
The “Killer” Whale

Posted under misc & news

First, my deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dawn Brancheau. She was clearly a dedicated and well loved person and she will be missed by many.

I’ve been following a lot of the stories and commentary about this latest incident of a captive orca’s killing a human trainer. Not surprisingly, that leads to having thoughts of my own.

I used to have a strong aversion to orcas, or killer whales. When I was 9 years old, I went to see a movie called Orca, a thriller. My one enduring image from the film is of a large orca surging up onto a beach, trying to grab some human(s) there. We left the movie before it was over because it was so terrifying to us. I have also once been to SeaWorld in Florida, around the same time, and seen a killer whale show, though I don’t honestly remember much about it. I knew just about nothing about the reality of orcas.

Then, as an adult with a growing interest in and passion for whales, I finally picked up a book (that I had passed over multiple time before) called “Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us” by Alexandra Morton. This is a highly engaging and accessible book which demystified orcas for me and made them much more intriguing animals. They were no longer in my head as mindless, vicious killers, but as intelligent, complicated animals. Part of the book talks about how she started by working in marine parks and then moved to study orcas in the wild as she became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea and practice of orcas in captivity. Continue Reading »


January 18th 2010
Two MILLION Whales Killed

Posted under news

Let’s think about that sobering number for a moment.

2,000,000 – two MILLION whales – killed in the 20th century.

That’s a lot of whales. Present populations of different species vary around the world, with some like the Atlantic grey whale’s being completely gone, the Pacific grey whale and North Atlantic right whale very close to it. But two million… that was a number that made me sit up and take notice all of a sudden.  I’ve read different accounts of whaling with estimates of number killed, but never an aggregate total. Of the largest whales, populations were so drastically reduced as to result in single digit percentages (as little as 1-2% of blue whales, 5% or less of humpback whales) remaining from the original, naturally healthy and abundant populations. Continue Reading »


January 11th 2010
Escalating whale wars

Posted under news

This is probably blog post # 567,893 on this topic since the destruction of the Ady Gil in the Antarctic. The internet has been abuzz with postings: news, videos, opinion pieces all over the map. Here’s one more.

The internet has been abuzz with postings: news, videos, opinion pieces all over the map. Here’s one more.
I’ve long had a sort of mixed feeling about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. For one thing, I respect people who are willing to put their lives on the line for a matter for which they feel such passion. Because that matter is whales, and their survival, they are certainly on my radar more prominently than other conservation concerns. I know that the SSCS can be a source of consternation for other conservation groups, too, with the mixed blessing of calling attention to an important issue but doing so in a frequently very dangerous manner. The TV show Whale Wars has certainly
If there is a good thing, as Andy Rivkin put, it, does a whale being harpooned with no witness get heard”, awareness. Bt how much awareness is happening where it counts most, in Japan?
Japan is notoriously resistent to Western influence on this matter. I once commented to Bill Clinton, when Hillary was running for president, that if she won the White House, to pressure Japan to stop whaling. His response was that this was the one issue that they were really defenseive about. It’s known that the Japanese people are fairly indeiffernt to the issue of whaling. Is it that they truly do not know what is happening, how much the whales sffer in teh killing?
If the Japanese people beomc more aware and more vocal about a resistance to this slaughtr, will that be the fina piece neeeded to end this cruel practice there>?
And what wll it take to also end the commercial whaling by Norway and Iceland?
Yes, whales need this war. Most successful movements for change are a result of a combination of approaches – the loud and visible to keep it on the radar, and the quieter efforts to effect one on one change. I sincerely hope this war does not escalate to the loss of human life on either side.

I will start by saying that I’ve long had a sort of mixed feeling about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). For one thing, I respect people who are willing to put their lives on the line for a matter for which they feel such passion. Because this matter is whales and their survival, it’s certainly on my radar more prominently than many other conservation concerns. And I respect that people ARE willing to go to these lengths to stop whaling. I don’t think I could make the sacrifices that they do.

I also know that the SSCS can be a source of consternation for other conservation groups, too, with the mixed blessing of calling attention to an important issue but doing so in a frequently very dangerous manner. The TV show Whale Wars has certainly brought the activity of whaling before a lot more people than would have otherwise been aware of it. There’s also a very good book on the same topic, from the whaling season before the TV show began, The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals by Peter Heller. He went out with them for a season and wrote about the experience, from the perspective of relative objectivity so it’s not all “rah rah SSCS” but still with respect for them and their devotion. Through all of these avenues,  I think that SSCS is calling valuable attention to a serious issue, even though their tactics are heavy handed. Continue Reading »


October 23rd 2009
Missed whales and dead whales

Posted under misc

It is getting close to the end of October and that means the end of the whale watching season here in the Northeast US. I had hoped to get out one more time before the end, but weather and budget are getting in the way. Sighting reports have dropped as well, so it seems the migration is well under way and it falls to me to bide my time until spring. Makes the news of the return of humpbacks to Hawaii that much more of a siren’s song. One day I will see whales in those waters…

Meanwhile, I shift into more of a mode of watching for stories and reflecting upon them. Which brings me to the dead whales of the post’s title. There’s an interesting story from the UK about a biologist’s experience with trying to learn from the body of a dead whale. As he says, “everybody should watch a whale being dissected – it teaches us about life“. Does make me glad that I made the effort to watch some of the dissection of a fin whale back in May. Gruesome business though it is, seeing these animals so closely adds a whole new dimension to their reality, and reaches people who might suddenly see the beauty of these animals and want to do more to try to save them.

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October 8th 2009
Wherefore Art Thou, Whales?

Posted under whale watches

Eager whale watchers, reflect in the boat's wake.After a nearly 3 month gap since my last whale watch, I was downright itching to go out again and finally made it on Oct. 5. Following the Whale Center and Capt Bill and Sons on Twitter all summer, with numerous updates about spectacular whale watching, just whetted the appetite all the more.

So with reports of great end of season whale watching, I took my mom and two family friends out for their first whale watch, and a friend out for his second. And we got a lesson in the reality that we are indeed entering the natural, wild habitat of the whales and nothing is ever a sure thing. We DID see some whales, specifically Evolution, Ravine, and Lavalier and her calf. But aside from the calf’s giving us one playful belly roll, all were basically just travelling along and not being very surface-active. Just proves that each trip is different, and one never knows what will be seen. We travelled fairly far south along Stellwagen Bank, and the visibility was so spectacular that we could see Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument on the horizon. We just didn’t find a lot of whale activity.

Ravine going down for a dive.Any day on the water is a good day. Any day with whales is even better! I’ve been spoiled by several spectacular whale watches this season so this was a little bit of a let down, especially as a first trip for some of my group. I am hoping to get out at least one more time before the season wraps up, and hopefully there will be some more activity to see. If not, I will just anxiously wait for next year!

Check out the photos – there are not many, but it was a beautiful day for shooting!

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