Friday, August 6, 2010

Alex Beach Stellwagen Bank

What a great way to end the class. We started last week looking at the nearly micro level with trips to the Barking Crab docks and Lovell's Island tide pools. Today we ended with a macro view of the entire Harbor Islands, greater Massachusetts Bay and the largest fauna that call it home. I have heard of people going on whale watching tours and seeing only one or two whales way off in the distance. I consider us very lucky based on how much we were able to see. Almost immediately after the captain killed the engine we found a mother humpback whale and her calf. They stayed next to the boat for almost 15 minutes. It was incredible to see these creatures rise up form almost underneath the boat for a breath of air. At one point the calf was no more than 10 feet from me. It was amazing that the guides could identify the mother so quickly based on her fluke pattern. This mother, Whisk (?) had been returning to Stellwagen for at least 8 years, often with a new calf. These kind of records and detailed study are very important to the conservation of such an endangered species. Despite the possible negative consequences of whale watching boats, noise pollution, disturbing the whales, etc I think there is a net gain from these types of trips. It raises plenty of awareness and respect for these creatures. The hundreds of people on board will hopefully leave with a better sense of stewardship towards the whales and other life on the planet. I already consider myself an environmentalist and activist and I was moved by watching these animals. On a side note, it is not hard to imagine how whalers were able to decimate whale populations so easily. They are fairly slow and seem to have little fear of boats, even approaching to within easy range of a hand held spear.

I was glad to see that the whale watch tour moved on from the mother and calf after a few minutes as to not disturb them too much. Even so we saw a few Minke whales and even a Fin whale about 200 meters off the starboard side. It is really cool that the second largest animal on the planet can be found only an hour boat ride from Boston. We soon found another mother and calf humpback pair. In total I believe we saw 6 individual humpback whales. Considering that the worldwide population is only 40,000 individuals, we saw roughly 0.015% of the entire humpback whale species today. That may not seem like a large percentage but if we saw the same percentage of the human species today we would have met every person in Boston, twice over. At first I thought that the circles that the humpbacks produced in the water were a result of the bubble net feeding strategy since the guide said that these were their feeding grounds. That would have been a sight to see but unfortunately they were just pressure waves from their flukes. Another interesting aside; the guide said that some whales could carry up to half a ton of barnacles on their bodies. I am amazed that barnacles live on the whales but it is an ingenious adaptation. Whales follow the food, and the barnacles get a free ride to where they can filter feed all the plankton they can eat. They also can be dispersed to a much greater range by tagging along for the ride.

On the return trip back to Boston I got a great view of the outer Harbor Islands. Calf Island, the four Brewster Islands, Shag rocks, and the Boston Light all looked like extremely interesting places to explore. Even from afar I could tell that they were pretty different from the inner islands we have been working on. Once I make my millions and buy a boat those islands will be one of my first stops. And now since I can still feel the rolling of the ocean I am going to go for a swim. Thanks for a great week and a half everyone!

-Alex Beach

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