Intimate, ‘old-school’ whale watches foster ‘deeper connectedness’ between people, marine life

Posted Sept. 25, 2013, at 12:05 p.m.

OFF MOUNT DESERT ROCK, Maine — A stream of water shot into the sky, and it could only mean one thing — a whale.

At the helm of Osprey, Capt. Toby Stephenson steered the boat into the glare of the setting sun and motored ahead for a closer look.

“A North Atlantic right whale — just here ahead of us,” he shouted from the cabin. A few minutes later, he cut the engine and joined the passengers standing on deck.

Osprey bobbed on gentle waves, 30 nautical miles offshore. Mount Desert Island, and the nearest safe harbor, was a faint blob on the horizon. The breeze was warm for September. Not a cloud could be found in the sky.

The group of 13 passengers shifted starboard, where the long, dark, glistening back of the whale was just visible above the water.

Hunted to near extinction in the 1960s, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whale species in the world. Researchers estimate that fewer than 500 remain swimming in the ocean today.

“I haven’t seen one in at least three years,” said Stephenson, who has devoted much of his life to whale research and education.

As captain of the College of the Atlantic research vessel, Stephenson began leading whale watches this summer, when COA partnered with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. to revive the old-fashioned whale-watching experience — essentially a smaller boat carrying a smaller group for day-long excursions with naturalists and researchers.

“These trips are designed to go back to the old-school whale watching that used to be done in the ’70s and ’80, where we spent a lot more time time on the whales,” Stephenson said.

Today, typical whale watches by Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. last about 3 hours and are on catamarans capable of carrying several hundred passengers.

The Osprey is a different experience. Casting off at noon with no more than 20 passengers aboard, the powerful 46-foot WESMAC fishing boat cruises the ocean for five or six hours in search of humpbacks, finbacks, porpoises and dolphins. These special tours, which cost $129 per passenger, run twice a week, weather permitting, through October.

“This really made my week to find out that these trips were back,” said Pat Tracey, a passenger from Brick, N.J., who attended a similar whale watch in the 1980s out of Northeast Harbor with Capt. Bob Bowman.

In addition to educating the public about the whales roaming the Gulf of Maine, the Osprey and the vessels of Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. collect data on whale sightings for Allied Whale, COA’s marine mammal research group.

Founded in 1972, Allied Whale was among the first groups to successfully use the technique of photo identification to study whales, and today, they are responsible for the largest collection of information on photo-identified humpback and finback whales in the world.

Using photographs, they identify individual whales by unique physical traits such as color patterns, fin shapes and markings. Some differences are subtle, while others are as distinct as the nine dark dots on an otherwise white fluke, a characteristic of a humpback whale named Spy, listed in Allied Whale’s 2007 Humpback Whale Catalogue.

“Over the past 10-11 years, since this new relationship we’ve had [with Bar Harbor Whale Watch], we’ve really accrued an impressive database of information of how, when and where whales are using the Gulf of Maine,” said Sean Todd, director of Allied Whale and COA faculty member in marine sciences. “For us, that’s been incredibly useful.”

“Sometimes there are whales we recognize right away because we’ve been seeing them throughout the season,” said crew member Rachel Sullivan-Lord, a senior at COA.

This summer, Osprey whale watches have documented several sightings of a humpback whale known as Gemini, a whale first photographed as an adult in 1979.

A humpback is chiefly identified by the coloring, shape and markings on its tail, but the North Atlantic right whale is a different story. They are identified by a number of physical traits, but primarily, it’s the distinct pattern of callosities, or raised tissue, on the top of their heads that differentiate one individual right whale from another.

“I never thought I’d see one in my time here in the Gulf of Maine,” said Sullivan-Lord, who grew up in Rhode Island. “I’m on the water fairly frequently in the summertime, but not every single day, and the chances of seeing a right whale are really slim.”

Sullivan-Lord not only works aboard Osprey, she also works two or three times a week aboard Bar Harbor Whale Watch vessels. Typically, she assumes the role of naturalist, constantly engaging with the passengers and imparting information on topics ranging from seabird colonies to local history.

Yet when the right whale was spotted, she slipped away from the group to watch the whale in solitude. Of all the time she’d spent on the ocean, it was the first time she’d seen such a rare whale.

Leaning through a window beside the helm, she rapidly took photos as the right whale’s tail rose from the water and smacked the surface. Her photographs would be sent to the New England Aquarium, home of the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalogue.

“Whales have some draw to them,” Sullivan-Lord said. “Maybe because of their size or their close relation to humans as mammals. But the first time you see a whale, it’s very striking.”

The right whale seemed to be swimming in a zigzag pattern, perhaps feeding on plankton. It disappeared for several minutes, only to reappear in an unpredictable spot, signaling its whereabouts with a blow.

As Sullivan-Lord waited for the whale to resurface, she was plenty busy photographing the super-pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins that had swept into the area. Their dorsal fins cut through the waves, and on occasion a dolphin would leap clear out of the water, exposing its grey, white and yellow body. The young naturalist estimated the group to be 500 dolphins strong.

“Atlantic white-sided dolphins are the most common dolphin species we see here, but we usually see them more in the fall,” she said. “That’s one of the largest groups I’ve ever seen.”

As dolphins swam just feet from Osprey, Stephenson followed the whale at a safe distance. It’s illegal to approach right whales within 500 yards in U.S. waters without a scientific research permit. Such a rare creature is protected by both the Marine Animal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, as is the humpback whale, fin whale and many other species.

“To see a right whale is a very special thing because there aren’t many of them — these animals are highly endangered,” Todd said. “One of our concerns about this animal is the number of animals that die in the population due to human activity is very close to the number of animals that are born every year in that population. So trying to mediate human activity to minimize that mortality is really really important. The trick is to pass on a sense of stewardship to the humans who are working on the ocean.”

In Cape Cod, a network of special buoys detect the vocalization of North Atlantic right whale so warnings can be sent out to ships in the area if one is present. And throughout the Gulf of Maine, a network spreads news of whale sightings by mariners by radio.

Whale conservation organizations continue to research whale movement and population throughout the world. In recent years, Allied Whale researchers have traveled to Canada, Newfoundland, the Antarctic, New Zealand, Dominican Republic and Bermuda in their studies.

“Actually seeing the animals in the environment is the best way to have people connect to issues that are really important to conservation,” said Sullivan-Lord, who spent last winter studying great blue whales in Sri Lanka. “You can hear about whales on TV or a PBS episode, you can see pictures of them, but actually seeing them for yourself and having that personal connection, I think that’s the key factor. You start to care about them, to care about their environment and other things that affect them.”

Stephenson fired up the engine to drive past the right whale one more time before starting the 90-minute trip back to Bar Harbor.

“Most of the people who come out on these [whale watches] are already interested in conservation and fascinated in wildlife enough that they care about it enough to come out and spend money to go do a trip,” Stephenson said. “It’s important to them. So they’ve already bought in to the need and the value of conservation. But what I think continuing to do these trips does is brings people to a much deeper and warmer experience with it and a deeper connectedness to it, and they appreciate it even more then. It makes it mean even more to them.”