2012 June 23, Saturday
Searching for the whale "Dome"
Gulf of Maine, east of Cape Cod
With Tropical Storm Debby threatening our return flight to New Orleans, we were pretty sure this might have to be our last day to fly the Gulf of Maine, or we'd be staying here for the week (which would have been great, but not for our own critters and obligations back in the Gulf of Mexico!). Still, we couldn't justify the cost just to fly out there and take more cool photos. Until the phone call came -- this time a well-known and loved female humpback "Dome" was photographed with fishing gear and netting all over her, and an orange buoy hanging off her side. Rescue boats and crews were mobilized, but they could not find her; could we go help? Of course! But most of the office staff had already left early for weekend whale-watching duties. We needed a good spotter.
Enter Regina, the Executive Director (for North America) of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. There isn't a better spotter! It would be a dream to get her to come along. Regina and her dedicated staff and interns spend most of their days on boats and their nights at computers, processing and analyzing photographs of whales. They are all trained and experienced marine biologists, but the most remarkable thing about them is how they know most of these humpback whales individually. They know which moms have had calves this year, the condition of their weight and overall health, their scars, etc. Each of the whales has a name, even! I had the privilege of staying at their office/house during this trip, and I saw them work firsthand. Almost 24 hour per day there are people working in the large central office, discussing scars and weight and other observations of the week, keeping track of who (of the whales) hasn't been seen yet, their overall condition, etc.
Well, she was there when we got the call, and she knew "Dome", and how could she not come along? We headed straight for where the humpback activity had been the greatest. It was as if the whales knew they had a very special spectator. The boys (I assume?) were showing off like crazy! Back breaches, side breaches, fin- and tail-slapping, you name it, they were doing it. Even the finback whales seemed to be in finest form today. All of that would have made my day, but we weren't there to photograph the show. We couldn't even take the time to circle twice to catch another breach. As soon as we determined that the whales we were looking at were free of fishing gear, we moved on to the next sighting.
Not long into the flight, Regina started making exclamations I didn't understand. Things like "Oh Sirius, that is Sirius!" ("Am I serious about what, Regina?") "No! That whale, over there! We haven't seen him yet this year!" I realized that even though I wasn't trying to give her good photographs, she was back there practically hanging out of the windows getting them! And she knew what she was looking at. In only about 45 minutes of my maneuvering the airplane quickly and her clicking her camera madly, Regina had managed to identify eight individual whales, many of which had not been seen yet this year and had become the subject of concern at the WDCS office. "Fulcrum", "Sirius", Putter", "Loon" and "Ventisca", "Anchor", "Abrasion", and "Stub"... When we got back to the office, she proceeded to point them all out to me in the photos, and I will try to show them to you here! But best you ask her sometime...
Anyway, enjoy the show. And enjoy knowing that there are people who devote their lives to seriously monitoring the well-being of these animals! We humans may not all be so bad as stewards to our oceans, after all. People like Regina give me real encouragement for the human race.
Here are maps of today's flight with some of our favorite photos from today. The first three whales of the "favorite" photos are among those identified -- specifically I think they are "Fulcrum", "Sirius", and the third has "Abrasion" on the left and "Stub" on the middle. (You can kind of tell how those two got named!)
Following those are the photo galleries -- including one devoted entirely to photos of all of the whales that Regina identified individually (plus a list of them and their positions and photograph numbers at the bottom of this article). See if you could recognize them if you saw them again!
[Update on Dome: As of July 2, she was still entangled but was managing to feed and move and nurse her calf. Boat crews continue to try to help her, and she continues to keep them away from her calf, and thus unfortunately, away from being able to help her. ]