The Greatest Naturalists on Earth

In the early hours of July 11, 2014, the Morgan departs from her mooring near Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her destination is the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a critical feeding and nursery ground for several whale and dolphin species. This will be the first of three day trips to one of the world’s premier whale-watching sites. There are already a few whale-watching boats in the area, and as the Morgan leaves port, she receives a message from the NOAA vessel R/V Auk over the radio. The whales have been seen.

The data collection of the past few weeks has allowed the voyagers a deeper understanding of the waters they traverse. What’s more, during this trip they are joined by a special new guest: famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Now an advocate for marine conservation, Dr. Earle dubs the Morgan a “ship of hope” for the oceans and the creatures that dwell in them, reminding the voyagers and crew of the significance of their journey. With this new perspective in mind, the possibility of finally sighting a whale becomes even more exciting.

A whale flukes near the <em>Morgan.</em> (Andy Price, D2014-07-0384)

A whale flukes near the Morgan. (Andy Price, D2014-07-0384)

Like the rest of the measurements taken onboard, the observations in Stellwagen Bank will be recorded in the scientific logbook. In this case, however, the voyagers will rely on the simplest piece of equipment that they will use during the voyage: their eyes. This tool proves its worth almost immediately upon arrival at the whale grounds. At 11:06 am, the voyagers see their first whale, a minke. Three humpbacks soon make an appearance, bubble feeding at the surface. They are eventually joined by a group of five, including a mother-calf pair.

Both minke and humpback whales are baleen whales, which means they feed on krill, plankton, and small fish. In spite of this diet of tiny organisms, individuals can grow to a massive size. The minke whale is the smallest baleen whale in North American waters, yet it can reach up to 35 feet long and weigh as much as 20,000 lbs. The humpback can almost double that length at 60 feet, weighing between 25 and 40 tons. Their presence is no surprise.  As they spend their summer months feeding at high latitudes, humpbacks and minkes are among the species typically observed at this time of year on Stellwagen Bank.

Without the benefits of modern technology, nineteenth-century whalers relied almost completely on knowledge of migratory routes passed on from generation to generation. This information was not calculated by plankton density, water visibility, or sea surface temperature. Instead, sailors relied on observation. Ship captains navigated to seasonal whaling grounds where whales had been consistently observed. These voyages could last from several months to a few years, during which time whalers kept records on animal size, organs, stomach content, and bone structure.

Originally, these data served a lucrative purpose. As multiple whaling vessels competed for the same resource, understanding life cycles, species, and feeding habits was particularly valuable. Larger whales would yield more product, and concentrations of several individuals in one area provided easier access to the catch. In the 1820s, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury established the first form of public access to whaling knowledge with his first citizen science project. In addition to the data provided by Navy logbooks, Maury asked whaling captains to fill out abstract log sheets recording their observations of whales at sea. He combined this information into a single chart that contained wind patterns, current trajectories, and whale migrations. To encourage further collaboration, he would reward his informers with access to these charts.

Maury Whale Map

Lieutenant Maury combined data from whaling logbooks to create charts of whale migrations throughout the world’s oceans. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maury’s legacy continues today. Much of twenty-first century whale research is now based on inadvertent “science” conducted by the whalers, and some of the best modern information is crowd-sourced. Whaling science has shifted from economy to conservation, and this information has led to the establishment of protected areas where whales are known to feed and breed. In this way, the voyage to Stellwagen Bank is a symbolic one. It marks our change in perception of whales and the natural world. When the Morgan first sailed in the 1840s, whales were considered an unlimited resource to exploit. Yet during the 38th voyage, instead of hunting the whales out on Stellwagen Bank, the last wooden whaleship afloat defies her origins and serves as an ambassador for ocean conservation.