Who Wants to See Some Whaaaales?

protectedspeciesbannerHappy National Oceans Month Y’all!

by Robin Happel

Copy Editor & Certified Protected Species Observer

As some of our more treehugging readers may know, June is Oceans Month. Although mainly known in the U.S. as the only month-long June celebration Mike Pence will acknowledge, globally this is a really big deal. This year, the United Nations made marine plastic pollution their spotlight issue for World Environment Day, and vowed to cut down on single-use plastics worldwide. The recent March for the Ocean demonstration in D.C. also drew massive crowds, including many high school and even younger students, because Gen Z is really just carrying all of us on their backs at this point. (Whitney Houston was right, the children are our future.)

Even with so much public support, however, the situation is still somewhat grim. Already, over 50% of sea turtles and 90% of sea birds eat plastic in their lifetimes. If we continue at our current pace, by 2050 there might be more plastic in the oceans than fish, and coral reefs could be gone before the end of this century. Globally, over 500 million people rely on reefs, and many more will be displaced by rising sea levels unless we rapidly change course from fossil fuels. Many marine megafauna like the right whale are also critically endangered, and, although species like the vaquita might still be saved, their fate depends on making them a policy priority.

In that spirit, this past weekend I spent an undisclosed amount of my summer research stipend to travel to Boston for a whale watching class. Why is whale watching a job? Well, it mostly wasn’t until the oil and gas industries decided to start firing air guns into the sea floor. Similar to sonar, seismic surveying allows offshore drilling operations to locate possible reserves, which they can then mine responsibly and/or spill roughly 130 million gallons of. Although previously a relatively niche industry, offshore drilling is now potentially expanding to the entire U.S. coastline (except, of course, a certain Florida resort). This means seismic surveying may also become much more common.

Unfortunately, whales are absolutely horrified by this process, possibly even more so than Al Gore, to the point that they will injure or even beach themselves trying to escape from survey vessels. For this reason, the Department of Interior, more specifically the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, came up with an intricate series of safety regulations around offshore oil exploration. (Some of which are – you guessed it – now on the chopping block.) I’m not going to subject all of you to this, since it took me almost a full day to understand and environmental policy is literally my major, but basically if a whale or manatee appears you have to shout at the crew to shut the whole thing down. (If I were ever on a survey vessel and saw a manatee this would be my first instinct anyway, but it’s nice to actually have some legal backing.)

The class also covered a lot of whale biology and other ocean trivia. I learned what noise a walrus makes, as well as that the bumps on a humpback whale’s snout are actually similar to whiskers (sea kitties!)  Also, sperm whales might dream similar to how we do, which becomes more mind-bending the more you think about it:

The highlight of the class by far, however, was a whale watching trip to Stellwagen Bank  National Marine Sanctuary. During our brief foray into Stellwagen, we saw a minke whale, fin whale, and a humpback whale named Hancock, so named for a distinctive scribble on her tail that looks like a signature. (Humpbacks have unique tail patterns that vary by individual, like our fingerprints.) Hancock’s other distinctive feature, according to the aquarium staff, is that she audibly sighs every time she’s at the surface (honestly the summer mood).

Although whales are protected in Stellwagen and similar preserves (at least for now), many are still at risk as they migrate up and down the coast. Keeping humpbacks like Hancock safe from survey vessels means being able to spot a whale within seconds, and stop the air guns before they get too close. In addition to the work Protected Species Observers perform, it’s also crucial to keep lobbying for laws that look out for both boat crew and whales. Were it not for the famed “Save the Whales” campaign of the 60’s and 70’s, humpbacks like Hancock might easily be extinct by now.  President Nixon – hardly a leading light of the progressive left – signed off on most of our nation’s major environmental laws, from NEPA to the creation of the EPA to the Endangered Species Act. Environmental advocacy still matters, even when it feels like it doesn’t.

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Hancock having a snack (courtesy Marine Protected Species Consulting)

Do you have an interesting summer exploit you want the paper to know about? Stop by our meetings next fall at 9 p.m. Tuesdays in McGinley 2nd or email us at paper.fordham@gmail.com! Here we are drinking in that sweet, sweet content:

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