News from the Columbia Climate School

Where the Great Whales Seek Sanctuary

fin whale
A fin whale surfacing at a distance. Regular visitors to Stellwagen, fin whales often travel in small groups. Photo: WCS

Off the coast of Massachusetts, the whales rise, and sing, and leap. I told myself I would not exclaim on seeing one. That I’d be graceful, drinking in the encounter with humble silence. But inevitably someone lets an ‘Oh my God’ slip out, or two or five, and I realized it was myself, dazzled, spinning from joy.

When the pandemic changed our lives, I was planning a summer of fieldwork on the Alaskan North Slope. Instead, I opted for research within reach. I found Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Paying attention to its contents and rhythms has become my antidote to the anxiety of our times.

Map of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Map of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Source: NOAA

Established in 1992, Stellwagen is located between Cape Ann and Cape Cod in the southwest corner of the Gulf of Maine. It is known worldwide for its rich spectacle of whales. Once an abattoir where whales were hunted, it now offers the opposite from its history of bloody waters, of persecution. It offers protection of crucial feeding habitats where seven species of whale can refuel before most journey north for the summer in the Arctic. Stellwagen is part of a network of marine protected areas designated in the United States, about eight percent total of marine waters across both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, focused on the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity, and cultural resources. The areas are mostly still open to fishing — “protected” defines regulations to curtail overharvesting.

“Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?” wrote poet Mary Oliver. The job of scientists who monitor marine protected areas is to find and strengthen these cords that connect habitats to ensure safer passage to all, especially marine mammals like whales. It is a rule of conservation ecology that by protecting tertiary predators like whales who depend on an intact food chain, we can better protect the integrity of the ecosystem and its intricate interconnections.

These endangered giants once filled the sea more numerously. In the 16th century, countries worldwide industrialized the slaughter of whales, turning their improbably large bodies into products like oil and soap. In the First World War, around 58,000 whales were killed for oil: to make smokeless explosives; to rub on the feet of soldiers stuck in trenches, a measure against rotting flesh; and to keep warm around whale oil stoves. As recently as the 1960s, Americans consumed whale liver oil as a source of vitamin D. A newspaper clipping from the Hartford Daily Courant (1853) advertised thousands of gallons of Sperm Whale Oil for sale by a company named Savage & Co. — right above the purchase of Sugar-House Syrup and Java Coffee, a typical item on a grocery list. We sacrificed them to wage war and then continued to kill them during times of peace to light our houses and fill our bellies. A low estimate of 3 million whales were killed in the last century alone, legally and illegally across the globe, as reported by Nature News. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling due to a severe, highly publicized crash in their populations.

We still tally the dead bodies of whales in the United States, although those killed inadvertently. Ship strikes, as they are referred to, kill hundreds of whales each year off either American coast.

Some scientists dedicate their lives to unraveling the mysteries of whale migrations and behaviors. Howard Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society monitors whale populations in the New York Bight to understand, in part, their habitat and feeding preferences. From bioacoustics and aerial survey data, he and others can inform leaders and managers responsible for lessening ship strikes.

“The bigger issue is how to work with the shipping industry, with the International Maritime Organization, with the national government, with state authorities [of New York in this case], to make this work for the protection of marine resources,” explains Rosenbaum. “Especially when you have to move something like a shipping lane. It is possible. It has happened. It’s not just driven by one set of actors; it’s a multifaceted concept and process. There are cases where we’ve been successful at doing that to avoid collision and ship strikes.”

humpback whale breaching
A humpback whale breaches in New York Bight. Photo: WCS Ocean Giants

Stellwagen is bisected by an ocean “superhighway,” the shipping channel into Boston, and it can be a fatal meeting spot for whales and vessels. In a joint effort between the Massachusetts Port Authority, Coast Guard, international shipping organizations, and others in 2007, the shipping lands were realigned, resulting in 81 percent fewer whale sightings by vessels and 58 percent fewer right whale sightings according to an investigative report by the Cape Cod Times. This means fewer chances of accidentally wounding or killing one of these gentle giants.

In the case of the North Atlantic right whale, critically endangered with an estimated 400 individuals in existence, getting to a zero-mortality rate is vital to their survival as a species, said Rosenbaum. “We want to see these animals persist in the future. The formula is pretty key from the human side: we need to stop them from getting hit by ships. They’re already living and eating and migrating through a highly urbanized environment. And so we have to take the needed steps, whether in Massachusetts Bay or when they move into areas like the Gulf of St. Lawrence and get entangled in nets. It’s this dynamic system, and it’s changing.”

Pouring over their delicate fates intensified my desire to witness them and to study their ecology. In June, I woke one morning at 4 am to meet Matt Pilczak, a local captain. He can tell you the exact fish species with barely a glance towards a barrage of flops on the open sea. He always seems to know who is eating whom. Two hours from the docks we cut the engine just on the edge of the bank that tops out 60 feet below the waves, a hotspot of plankton blooms, herring, sand lance, seabirds, and more. We had nearly given up waiting when the unmistakable inky back of a whale split the monotonous surface. A small family of fin whales, each about 60 feet long, zig-zagged, feeding on fish being hoodwinked by the slack tide, filling the whales’ gaping mouths like happy hour.

In the lulls of action, I sat suspended in awe. Suddenly, a young Minke whale altered its course to glide closer and closer like a mirage becoming true; its shimmering body took more precise shape as it rose under our boat. Then it appeared a few feet starboard to kiss the air, perhaps curious about us. My first thought was simply tenderness; my next was we don’t deserve them. How is it that we’ve persecuted such an indisputably brilliant, wondrous animal for so many centuries? We relegated them as purchases for our grocery lists. We used their insides to manufacture war.

Whales don’t write articles, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know in their way, who they are. Or that they don’t feel, that sensuous action upon which all life depends. We endeavor to protect them for their own sake, but we must for the sake of all our imaginations. Even if we never see them or keep a few sightings tucked close, their great journeys can offer our minds solace; their passage through depths we rarely reach, an antidote to a human world that feels especially fraught, anything but open and fluid. When the whole world is heartsick, howling, breaking, we can feel enlivened, full, when we see the back of something so alive, so determined. Each one, dignified by tens of millions of years of evolution, of graceful, mysterious anatomy, of enough beauty to quiet a stung heart, each one with a bigger story than our spines could ever carry.

A version of this story was originally published by the Explorer’s Club.

Cayte Bosler is a student in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management master’s program. She publishes on a variety of subjects, including wilderness conservation and climate change research. Based on her journalistic investigations from around the world, her writing critiques the effects of human development and explores links to ecological abuse. Her work appears in Scientific American, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic, Fast Company, the Atlantic, VICE Impact, and elsewhere. 

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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