Anne DiMonti: “There She Blows!” Again

A Marine Biologist’s Journey on a Whale Ship

By: Anne M. DiMonti July 30, 2014

As a sailor, marine biologist and environmental educator, I have always had an interest in the golden age of sailing and how it has affected our knowledge of current ocean species and ecosystems.

As Director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island Environmental Education Center, with over 25 years of experience in the marine field, my goal has been to generate public awareness to find a balance between the human need for the ocean’s many valuable natural resources and preservation of the marine ecosystem for future generations.

On July 10 and 11, 2014, I was given a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain a new perspective of ocean conservation. I was honored to be chosen to travel aboard the historical whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, as a visiting scientist on what has been coined by Mystic Seaport as the 38th Voyage.

The Charles W. Morgan is the last of an American whaling fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 vessels. Built and launched in 1841, the Morgan is America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat and the only surviving whale ship. Over an 80-year whaling career, the Morgan embarked on 37 voyages around the world between 1841 and 1921. After a five year renovation by Mystic Seaport, the Morgan’s current home, she set sail again in May 2014 for her 38th Voyage. (For more information please visit the Mystic Seaport’s website at www.mysticseaport.org.)

As the last great lady of her time, the Charles W. Morgan represents all the beauty, adventure, hard work and dedication of the great age of sail. Having travelled the world, the Morgan once hunted whales for the products that were greatly valued for their benefits to mankind. As a modern day marine biologist, I have great admiration for the whalers and merchants that sailed during the Morgan’s time. It is thanks to the knowledge passed down from these men that my colleagues and I have a base of knowledge and unde rstanding of today’s oceans.

My voyage abroad the Morgan would take me and my fellow 38th Voyagers from Provincetown, MA to Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and back to Provincetown. My fellow Voyagers represented a mix of talent and expertise which included a photographer, artist, teacher, physical oceanographer, marine archeologist, musician, writer and celestial navigator, all with the same goal, to discover how the past can improve the future. Upon boarding the Morgan for our overnight stay, we were like kids on Christmas morning, wide eyed and excited. Having remained almost completely unchanged since 1841, the Morgan gave us a unique opportunity to see how those before us shaped our current career/life paths. We felt honored, humbled and inspired to sail on this amazing ship and to follow in the footsteps of the mariners that came before us.

As the morning of July 11th began, we stumbled out of our tiny bunks in the Morgan’s fos’c’le and prepared to set sail for Stellwagen Bank. After a short tow by tug to clear the harbor, the Morgan dropped her tow lines and, for the first time since retiring in 1921, set full sail in search of whales. Although harpoons still hung from the rafters and the try-outs stood ready, it was cameras and scientific equipment that had been prepared for this voyage by modern day scientists. I had to wonder what the whalers would have thought of us. I’m sure we would have been a puzzling mystery to them.

For the first time since 1921, after a short time at sail, a cry was heard from the Captain of the Charles W. Morgan “There she blows! “ as a small minke whale was seen along the port rail. The excitement on deck was hard to contain. For the first time in almost 100 years, the Morgan was on the whales. Shortly after the minke whale was sighted, a small group of humpback whales was seen. These whales, which included a mother/calf pair, were observed feeding and displaying surface behaviors. One approached alongside of the Morgan with a fluke slap before diving. One of my fellow Voyagers commented that it was a sign that all was forgiven for the mistakes of the past. Another historical, 100 year moment came when the whaleboats where lowered and the crew rowed out after the whales, once again armed with cameras instead of harpoons. Click on http://www.mysticseaport.org/news/2014/morgan-sails-among-whales-on-stellwagen-bank/ to see a video of the whaleboat rowing out to the whales.

For many of us, it was a moment when time stood still. As scientists, we do not often get the opportunity to travel back in time to observe the past and understand where it has led us today. However, in this rare moment, we did. Observing the whaleboat rowing to the whales was an eye- opening experience that allowed us to understand how difficult the job was for these 19th century whalers and how keen their understanding must have been of sailing, ocean currents and whale behavior.

However, I could not help wonder if today we are having the same or possibly an even greater impact on whale populations than 19th century whaling did. In the 19th century, whales faced the whalers’ harpoons, when and if the whalers could catch them. These whalers killed approximately 16-20 whales per year per voyage, depending on the skill and luck of the ship’s crew. (Note that this should not be confused with industrial whaling and the factory ships of the 20th century which had a major impact on whale populations.) Today, whales and other marine species face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, ship strike, competition for natural resources, marine trash, chemical pollutants, noise pollutants, habitat destruction, climate change and more. For instance, between November 2012 and October 2013, there were 7 recorded cases of North Atlantic right whales entangled in fishing gear, two of which resulted in death. It is estimated that over 80% of all North Atlantic right whales show scars from entanglement. There were also three new cases of right whales sighted with propeller wounds. These figures are for only one species of whale, during one year along the eastern coast of the US, and represent cases that were actually observed and recorded by scientists in the field. What effect are we having on other species of whales around the world and what incidents are occurring that are not observed or recorded?

Nineteenth century whalers had little understanding that a species could be finite. During their time, the ocean was thought to have a limitless bounty which provided much needed resources such as whale oil to light homes and streets. What excuses can we offer today for our impact on marine species? Today, thanks to modern technology, the world is a much smaller place. We have a greater knowledge of the world around us and understand that the ocean’s resources are not boundless. Sadly, many conservation efforts have faced great difficulty and have managed only marginal improvements over time. Many feel this is the result of issues such as lack of funding and understanding by the general public of marine threats.

What the Morgan has shown us is that we are still strongly connected to our past. For all of our contemporary knowledge and technology, we are still, to this day, a people trying to find a balance between our need for the ocean’s resources and preserving it for the future. In many ways, our understanding of how to accomplish this goal is no better than when the Morgan first set sail in 1841. We can learn from the Charles W. Morgan . She has sailed into the 21st century as an ambassador for change with hopes of benefiting mankind by generating awareness for the future. Let’s learn from her example and work together to do the same. One hundred years from now what will people think of our use of the oceans resources? What legacy will we leave behind?