LUBEC, Maine — Two researchers from the New England Aquarium in Boston entertained tourists Friday at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse as they talked about their study of right whales in the Bay of Fundy.
Outside the lighthouse museum, a giant inflatable right whale towered over the building, giving visitors a real perspective on the size of whales.
“If I put on my hat, I’m a little bit taller,” 4-year-old Alex Turner of Waterville said. “But I still can’t even reach his eye.”
Turner and his family were among many tourists who came to snap photos and hike at the famous red-and-white striped lighthouse Friday and found a bonus — the whale experts.
Kara Mahoney Robinson and Jessica Taylor are researchers and educators at the New England Aquarium, which conducts worldwide studies of right whales. Each August and September, a team of researchers arrives in Lubec to study the whales in the Bay of Fundy.
The Down East research has been going on for 30 years, Taylor said. Some of the aquarium’s research has led to the discovery of the right whales’ calving grounds off Georgia and Florida.
“This summer, the team will be collecting samples of the blow from the whales, which contains mucous and can be tested for hormones,” Taylor said.
Throughout the day Friday, under the shadow of the immense inflated whale, the duo provided visitors with a hands-on exhibition of baleen, whales’ teeth; tools used for taking blubber samples from whales; and information about New England Aquarium’s research.
Mahoney Robinson explained there are only 473 right whales in the waters of North America.
“The things we can do to protect whales through our research can be translated into protecting other species,” she said. “It is really vital work.”
New England Aquarium’s newsletter, handed out to visitors, reported an alarming number of right whale deaths, entanglements and injuries since last December. Between January and March 2011, five right whale deaths were reported, and four right whales have been spotted with new injuries from vessel strikes. Between December and February, five new entanglements also were reported.
The research team now is working at Cape Cod, Mass., observing right whales and their vision as they feed on the surface to see how the whales react to different-colored fake ropes.
Taylor said the team is eager to return to Lubec and the Bay of Fundy to see if there is a repeat of last year’s unusual number of sperm whales. Although 2010 had the lowest tally of right whale sightings for the entire 31-year New England Aquarium study period — 35 compared with 168 in 2009 — Taylor said sperm whales were spotted throughout August and September.
Previously, only two sperm whales had been spotted by New England Aquarium in the bay, both on the same day in the early 1990s.
“We will be eager to see if they return this year,” Taylor said, “which would indicate a change in the food source.”