Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stellwagen Whale Watching - Observations and Learning Experience


It was around 10.20 am when we left Boston Harbor at a low tide for my first ever whale watching experience. I was very excited and kind of sad as it was the last day of class for all of us. It seemed like an end of a super adventure with Prof. Bruce. Nevertheless, we were heading towards the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to see some of the biggest creatures of the world - Whales!. The Stellwagen Bank is near the tip of the cape and has a lot of upwellings as due to the geological formations of the earth as well as due to plate movements. The currents hit the upwellings in the bank and hence, deposit a lot of nutrients in the area, attracting the marine life.

As we were allowed to bring guests with us, I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for Ashna, my girlfriend to come along as well. She got to meet all my fellow classmates and moreover, Prof. Bruce. As she was graduating, I thought that it may be a good idea to let her have a memorable experience on the last class of her life as an undergraduate student at BU. It turned out to be completely different from all the other classes she ever took in her college career as of date.

As we arrived in the Stellwagen Bank area, the boat slowed down in order for us to notice the whales. It was not long before we spotted our first whale which seemed to be like a humpback whale. it was floating along the water surface and its body shape could be seen through the water. It was at around 3 o' clock from the front of the ship (12 o' clock). It kept coming out of the water periodically and blowing air out of its top hole. There was a moment when the whale almost attached itself parallel to the ship due to curiosity probably. It looked very still and calm suggesting that it was a female whale most likely. The males are more aggressive and compete with each other to mate with the female whales, sometimes causing damage to each other's torsos.

I also learn a lot about the various kinds of fins the humpback whales have. They can range from hooked, to small hooked, to squared, to round and triangular at times as well. At around 10 o' clock, we saw a calf which was very near to the first whale we had seen confirming that the first whale was its mother as the calves stay for about a year with their mothers. The mothers generally, are very attached to their calves just like humans as due to the one year long gestation period which is a very weak period for the mother as it gives birth near the sea beds in the breeding grounds. The humpback whales which are up to 50 feet long and can weigh 30 tons on average start reproduction after they are 8 years old at least. Their average life span is more than 40-50 years.

Moments later, we saw two whales cruising right next to us at around 11 o' clock. They seemed to look like finback whales as due to their large size. They generally weight 50 tons or more and to have a length of 70 to 85 feet. On our trip, we also encountered a lot of minke whales around the area. They are relatively small in comparison to the finback as well as humpback whales as their average length is about 30 feet and they weight about 7-8 tons. Later, when we were on our way back to Boston, I was approached by Leah who works for the Whale Center of New England. She was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had and she helped me enhance my learning of whales.

After having a conversation with Leah, I learnt that the humpback whales eat approximately 3000 pounds every day and the milk they feed their calves contains about 40% fat. This suggests that the milk is really fatty and justifies the growth of the calves into big and heavy whales right from the beginning. She also mentioned about the poaching of whales by Japan, Norway, Iceland, and Greenland which poses a threat to the humpback whale population. She noted that the humpback whale population fell down by 80% to about 40,000 whales from about 200,000. As we were about to reach the Boston Shoreline, I asked her about the poaching of the whales by the native Indians in the US. It seems like they poach whales in order to sustain their colonies and as it is a part of their traditional culture which raises the question about the justification of the cultural value of killing an extremely endangered species on the planet.

I believe that as whales are in such a threat of being wiped out from the plant, the cultural aspect of the native Indians who believe in killing the whales should not be given emphasis to. Killing even one whale is a major threat to the population I feel as due to the very small size of the population which I do not think is sustainable unless it grows back closer to the original figure of 200,000. We concluded the day and the class thinking about the danger faced by the humpback whales by the poaching by our population to meet its growing demands.

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