Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Whale Tales

Seems there’s been whales in the news these past few weeks. I’m a big fan of whales myself, and one of the few things I miss about living up north is going on whale watches.

What’s a whale watch, you say?

A whale watch is where you pay an exorbitant sum to go out about 25 miles offshore with a passel of other tourists to look at whales swimming about. I’ve been on several whale watches, out of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Bar Harbor, Maine. A couple of the trips were in near-perfect weather with sunny skies and a smooth glassy sea. A couple others were gloomy and rough and had me tossing lunch to the gods of the sea. But each and every time I was amazed and awestruck while watching these graceful majestic creatures in the wild up close. To look over the side and see a 45-foot humpback just 15 feet away, with that giant, intelligent eye looking up at you, it’s mind-blowing. I’ve seen humpbacks, finbacks, and Minke whales, along with several species of dolphin & porpoises, and once I got to see a massive 40-foot long basking shark. If you ever get the opportunity to go on a whale watch, do so.

Last week, 5 members of the Makah tribe in Washington were indicted after killing a gray whale without a federal permit or tribal elder permission. Nominally, I’m against whaling for commercial purposes, but I can understand native tribes hunting a single whale annually as part of tribal tradition, in part because it does keep part of their heritage alive and in part because traditionally they don’t waste anything from the animal’s carcass.

The federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994. Five years later, with a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Makah tribal members killed their first whale in more than 70 years.

According to the indictment, the five took two motorboats into the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the tribe's reservation at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula on the morning of Sept. 8 and harpooned the California gray whale. They then shot it at least 16 times with a high-powered rifle, authorities allege. The whale sank and was not harvested, which really makes me sad since the whale now died for no purpose.

Back in May, tribal Eskimo hunters killed a 50-ton bowhead whale in Alaskan waters, and as the carcass was being stripped, an amazing discovery was made. Fragments of a whaling harpoon dating back more than a hundred years were embedded in the blubber near the whale’s shoulder. The weapon was used more than a century ago by whalers, enabling researchers to estimate that the whale was at least 115 years old and providing more evidence for their long-held belief that the bowhead whale is one of the longest living mammals on earth, surviving for up to 150 years.

Experts identified them as parts of an exploding lance made in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the late 1800s, when the city was the world's whaling capital. Hunters would spear the animal with the weapon, which would detonate once inside. Because the bomb lance was patented and stocks were used up quickly, the experts identified a narrow window in which they believe the whale was shot, sometime between 1885 and 1895. That’s just amazing, and sad at the same time that the animal had lived so long and seen so much.

On a happier note, in August a right whale and her calf were spotted about 20 miles off Rye Beach, New Hampshire. Rye Beach is about 15 miles from where I went to high school, and that area of ocean is an excellent place to see whales. The right whale is critically endangered, numbering perhaps 350 left in the world. Before the whaling boom of the 1700’s and 1800’s, the numbers of right whales were in the hundreds of thousands.
Researchers are very encouraged to see that this whale and her calf were in good health.

Right whales occur along the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada, with five known “hot spots,” or high-use areas, from the Bay of Fundy and Scotian Shelf off the coast of Canada, south to the coastal waters of the southeastern U.S. The only known calving ground for this species has been identified off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. The whales migrate from their feeding and nursery areas in the northeast to the calving grounds during the fall months, arriving in the southeast U.S from late-November through January. As the only known calving ground this area is extremely important to the population, providing shallow, protected waters for newborn right whale calves.

So if you’re a boater on the Carolina coast, keep an eye out and you might see a wonderful sight over the winter.

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