Right whale story not right
I have a few comments regarding the article “When ‘save the whales’ isn’t a joke” by Sabrina Manganella Simmons.
I worked with right whales for two calving seasons (1997-98 and 1998-99) as an employee of the New England Aquarium (NEA). We surveyed the coastal areas from Little St. Simons Island to Jacksonville Beach Florida and offshore to 20 miles. We also biopsy sampled mother-calf pairs by boat from this region and applied radio tags to whales that were subsequently tracked by boat and airplanes.
Cathy Sakas of Gray’s Reef is correct in emphasizing the “sluggishness” of right whales. However, to suggest that sleeping behavior or ‘logging’ is attributable to ship strikes ignores the maternal duties of whales.
For a large animal like a right whale, mothers can offer protection to their calves by simply remaining close. Because calves are limited in speed and endurance, a female whale might find herself in a vulnerable position, such as in front of an on-coming ship -- a situation that she would otherwise be able to avoid easily if she were not protecting her calf. More people might be willing to protect these whales if it were presented that these majestic mothers are doing nothing different than what any human parent would do: protecting their offspring.
On numerous occasions our survey planes would spot mother-calf pairs and we would board a Zodiac and go to the GPS location of the whales. Upon reaching the pair, the whales would leave the scene fairly quickly with respect to the 150-horsepower engine on the boat. However, in minutes the pair would slow and remain near the surface as the calf would become tired. Such was our goal as it allowed us to retrieve skin samples from the backs of the surface-active pair.
The female would always do her best to keep herself between us and her calf, thus supporting the idea that the protective instincts of the female coupled with the limited ability of calves to escape potential threats might be the reason why these rare animals are sometimes struck by ships.
Sakas also states that “right whales move in a north/south migratory path and ships move east/west in and out of ports – it’s like a convergence... typically whales are broad-sided.” One only has to look at the photo accompanying the article to see that the ship-struck whale depicted was not broadsided. In fact, the propeller wounds run straight down the back of the animal.
Right whales do move from northern climes to the south to calve their young and ships do enter and leave some ports from east to west. However, in periods of bad weather where conditions will make the shallow waters of the Georgia coast rough -- conditions that are dangerous to calves that might drown in such turbid water -- females move with their calves to deeper water. In instances like these the whales actually move from west to east.
Additionally, ships from Jacksonville will travel to Brunswick, and from these southerly areas to Savannah, moving south to north and vice versa. These relatively unpredictable movements of both ships and whales are the reason why whale-spotting surveys like that of the NEA are vital to warn harbor pilots of the presence of right whales so that they can warn ship traffic.
Lastly, Sakas informs us that the shallow waters of the Georgia coast during the winter not only provide young whales with a warm place to dwell while they develop their insulating blubber layer, but they also serve as a refuge for the young whales against predators like sharks.
Actually, the shallow waters of the Georgia coast are a haven for sharks and we commonly observed very large sharks, often right up to beaches, during our flights. Local sports fishermen can attest to the abundance of sharks in Georgia’s shallow waters, even during winter.
As for the complaints of those associated with the shipping industry and how regulations enacted to protect these critically endangered animals will adversely affect ship traffic, my comment to them is: EVOLVE.
Additionally, it is disturbing that the co-director of a federal agency like NOAA’s Gray’s Reef, that is, in part, responsible for the protection of and dissemination of information regarding right whales, is lacking in her basic knowledge concerning the life history of right whales as well as in general aspects of the ecology of the coastal environment. I only hope that Ms. Sakas was simply misquoted.
Your help getting out the word on the Forest Gardening events was invaluable. We had 135 people at the free lecture Thursday and 25-30 all weekend at the Bamboo Farm.
There is now the possibility of a demonstration Edible Forest Garden at the Bamboo Farm. If it happens, it will be the first such public garden in the country.
There is a group of folks committed to trying these principles in their own small (downtown courtyard) to large (26 acres) plots of land and sharing the results. Then there were all the readers who received their introduction to the ideas of such sustainable gardening from your pages.
These are ideas that matter to our having a sustainable future; and your efforts have made a difference.