Monday, June 4, 2007


Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. ...

...Like household dogs they came snuffing round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers.

...Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.

...But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

--Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Ch. 87 "The Grand Armada"
A long time had passed since my lady and I had a chance to sneak away together, when we finally made it happen this past weekend. With the Memorial Day blowout behind it Cape Cod takes a three week's breath to prepare for the summer onslaught, and we took advantage of the slack to make a long weekend trip to Provincetown.

We had a really wonderful time. We stayed at The Gallery Inn, where we were made to feel very welcome. This guesthouse is squarely in the middle of the Commercial Street strip, with the majority of artist galleries to the east and the majority of bars, restaurants and shops-of-nothing (and nothing-to-mention) to the west. We spent most of the time on foot, with a half-day spent exploring the bike paths of the National Seashore. Much drinking and eating, though I did get up for an early-morning jog two days.

Those early mornings threatened rain, and I enjoyed empty streets shrouded in fog and mist, and lonesome views of the salt flats behind the breakwater. That land is blessedly useless to us. Still pools of salt water reflect the sand and stubborn plants that hold it all in place, gradually giving way to the dunes of the Province Lands. On those mornings, the pools were silvery mirrors to low clouds and beyond them the sky came down to touch the sea.

The dramatic highlight for both of us, however, was a whale-watching trip with the Dolphin Fleet company. Words cannot capture the amazement, the child-like wonder, that seems to thrill anyone who has had a lucky whale-watching cruise. I've been on two before this one, with limited results. Last Friday, however, we were given a real gift.

It is the beginning of the feeding season for Humpback whales. They've been breeding in the warm waters of the Dominican Republic all winter (a past-time seemingly enjoyed by most mammals who have the chance to winter there). The clear Caribbean waters are nutritional deserts, however. The whales make their way north to Stellwagen Bank just off the tip of the Cape to feed on tiny krill all summer. Almost all of the great fishing banks in the Gulf of Maine enjoy some whale presence at this time; Stellwagen Bank just happens to be very close to Provincetown and to Boston, making it an ideal whale-watching destination. Even with that advantage, it takes a bit of luck:

That particular show, the breaching whale, was repeated many times by the same individual -- a very rare treat. We also saw several whales lazing idly on their backs and sides, repeatedly slapping the water with their pectoral fins. We witnessed a mother and calf, swimming close to the surface and breifly accompanied by another whale, slowly cruising the feeding grounds.

The humpback is one of four great whale species that populate the Gulf of Maine and like both the Right and Fin Whales, is endangered. (The Minke enjoys a population of some 3-4000 and is, for the moment, safe from extinction.) The humpback, so named for the distinctive dorsal not-quite-fin, is the most playful on the surface of the water, slapping its tail, rolling, breaching. Although all these behaviors are well-known to the naturalists who track individuals for years and years, no one has yet figured out why they do it.

They should be exhausted. They've just reached the bank after a starving winter and a prodigious journey. On the other hand, I've been known to react similarly to the sudden availability of food. So I think they're just happy to be back in New England waters.

Humpback whales are distinguished by the unique markings on their tails--a "tailprint" as unique as the whorls on your thumb. Our showoff is known as "Wave." The whale pictured with fins in the air was "Eruption." The mother of the calf we saw is "Black Hole." When her calf is one year old and the pigment in its tail has finally settled, the calf will be given a name as well.

Stellwagen Bank National Maritime Sanctuary
offers limited protection. There's still shipping and fishing and pleasure boating. Commercial and military shipping poses by far the greatest threat to the whales in these waters. Scientists reckon that collisions with a ship traveling less than 13 knots would not be fatal. The reduced speed also gives the whales a chance to get out of the way. The military strikes more whales than anyone else (they have more ships and they zip about and they aren't willing to not zip about). The military are not subject to the regulations and of course the shipping industry is averse to anything that would slow down their "just in time" supply chain.

The World Shipping Council (Partner's in America's Trade) is primarily concerned with the way a reduced speed over whale routes would affect the timing of their constituents' ships' arrival in port. Of course, once the limit is in place, the timing is easily adjustable to match the tides. It's pretty much a simple math problem - the same problem, in fact, that they've already solved based on a constant rate of speed.

Their stronger argument is that the evidence for reduced speed is "inconclusive." But that's the standard industry response to all regulation, no matter the industry or the regulation. Find one scientist or study with a varying opinion and you've got "inconclusive." This is what happens when you substitute legal reasoning for scientific reasoning. It is the perennial bugaboo of the conservation lobby, as scientists will never evince unanimity. Because rules and regulations are black-and-white, lawyers like the evidence in support of those rules to reflect certainty, rather than probability.

What is not up for debate is that unless we take care, we will kill off the right whale. At least when we were harvesting them for oil, there was some justification for the carnage. Now, we're just being indifferent.

There are approximately 8-900 humpback whales left.

There are maybe 300 right whales left.

When all the shipments are on time, will we be glad we killed the whales?

Whale-watching itself is ambiguous. The ambient noise of the boats creates a constant wash of noise in the water. That noise has been shown to disorient the animals, although not all of the time. The crew of the Dolphin Fleet follow a series of guidelines promulgated by NOAA (not a lot on the site--I have a pamphlet if you're interested in more). But there's little enforcement; the guidelines are largely voluntary (although there are penalties in the unlikely event a violator is caught).

No one really knows, and that's the terrible paradox: there is so much we have yet to learn, but we're irredeemably clumsy sometimes, even when we're trying our best.

But when we fail even to try, we're positively lethal.