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The Whales' Tale

A small Maine organization protects an iconic animal — and the oceans.

At any given time, researchers at Allied Whale — a marine mammal laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine — are likely to be away from their small offices and instead somewhere in the Southern Ocean. Or perhaps on a small, rocky island 20 miles out in the Gulf of Maine. Or zipping offshore in a RIB to tie a line on a dead whale in preparation for towing it to shore. They may be rescuing a seal pup abandoned on a rocky ledge.

They might also be photographing and cataloging humpback whales and right whales and all sorts of other whales, teaching citizen scientists how to recognize whales by their markings, or flying off to international marine mammal conferences. It’s possible they are facilitating esoteric student research projects, like setting passive-acoustic hydrophones in the ocean to capture whale vocalizations. They might be dressed in biohazard gear and wielding flensing knives to necropsy a decomposed sperm whale hauled up on a beach. Or burying the stripped bones in specially composed compost, where bacteria will take a year to finish cleaning them. Or they may be in the process of digging up the bones and reassembling them for exhibits in venues around the nation.

Ultimately, though, they will return to their headquarters, up a creaky wooden staircase in a 120-year-old, castle-like building called The Turrets. Originally built as a home by a wealthy local denizen, The Turrets is now the administrative building for College of the Atlantic, which is focused on all things maritime and made for a natural progenitor for Allied Whale when the organization was born, in 1972.

Here, overlooking the tourist town’s island-dotted harbor, researchers and students document and catalogue all that work, craft hands-on educational programs, and network with marine mammal experts and citizen scientists around the world.

It’s all in the interest of monitoring and protecting one of the world’s most charismatic animals — the great whales — and, by extension, protecting the world’s oceans. Whales are excellent sentinels of ocean health, says Sean Todd, Allied Whale’s director and College of the Atlantic Steven K.

Katona Chair in Marine Sciences. There are scientific reasons for that. For example, whales are at the top of the food chain, so subtle effects occurring lower down bioaccumulate and manifest by the time they reach whales. Also, whales reproduce slowly, perhaps a calf every two years. So they provide an averaged glimpse into of changes of the ocean environment over time.


Then there’s their social impact.

“People love whales,” Todd says. “They have an aesthetic that’s really appealing to humans. So if I can talk about whales to drive a cause or illustrate a point or provide an educational lesson, I’ll do it. People say to me, ‘Save the whales.’ I say, ‘Sure, we should save the whales, but how about we save the ocean?’ If we save the ocean — and it needs saving — then whales will be in a lot better position.”

Allied Whale happens to be in my neck of the woods, so I’ve known Todd since he came on as director in the late 1990s, after earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Memorial University in Newfoundland and spending 10 years there with a group that disentangles large whales from fishing gear.

Born and raised in England, he’s been fascinated by whales since childhood.

“I’m one of these people who, during a storm, I’ll go on the beach and I’ll watch the waves and I can’t leave because I’ve got to see if the next wave’s bigger,” he says with a laugh.

When he was 7, he saw a film called “Mr. Forbush and the Penguins,” partly set in Antarctica, the hero surrounded by penguins.

“It was on late at night, and I kept looking over my shoulder because I thought my mom was going to say, ‘Sean, it’s time to go to bed,’” he recalls. “I got deeper and deeper into this film. It was very stirring. I got through the entire film and knew I had to go to Antarctica. And here I am going to Antarctica. It’s incredible.”

For the past 20 years, Todd has been a guest lecturer aboard an ecotourism expedition ship in the Southern Ocean. A gregarious fellow, he’s thrilled that his expertise has given him these opportunities (and grateful to his wife Caroline and daughter Sara. “I have a family that’s extraordinarily generous in giving me the time to go and pursue my passions,” he says. “I count myself incredibly lucky.”)

Antarctica “was and is absolutely stunning, nature at its most raw,” he says. Plus, the animals are easy to work with. In the Gulf of Maine, whales, pursued by a plethora of sightseeing boats, have become a bit shy. “But down there, the whales are pretty curious. The seals are easy to approach. The penguins are everywhere.”

The trips are a great platform for marine mammal research, and provide visual evidence of climate change

After towing a dead sperm whale to a local beach, Allied Whale employees and students perform a necropsy.

After towing a dead sperm whale to a local beach, Allied Whale employees and students perform a necropsy.

“I remember going to Antarctica 15 years ago and seeing glacier-covered areas that are now bare rock,” he says. “We’re seeing shifts in species dominance. Certain kinds of penguins are not doing well because the krill is not doing well, because krill requires ice and that ice is going away.”

While down there, he also has his camera out, documenting species of whales and other animals. Photos of the Antarctic humpback whales will go toward Allied Whale’s photo-identification catalogue. This type of work is central to the organization’s original mission. Founded by Steven Katona, who would become a College of the Atlantic president, Allied Whale was instrumental in the development of photographic-identification techniques, which enable scientists to follow an individual whale anywhere it travels by comparing color patterns, fin shapes and other distinguishing marks.

That first catalogue, of North Atlantic humpbacks, started with photos of 120 individuals and today contains nearly 10,000. North Atlantic finback and Antarctic humpbacks are similarly tracked. The catalogues provide insight into population numbers and movements sometimes spanning thousands of miles — information that helps guide the management of human impacts, like fishing and shipping. Photo ID has since been adopted worldwide, with contributions coming from anyone with a camera, whether they’re official researchers or casual boaters.

Recently, Tom Fernald, manager of the North Atlantic Humpback and Antarctic Humpback catalogues, and College of the Atlantic graduate student Lindsey Jones were processing a batch of contributed photos. For each photo, they and others pore through thousands of past photos to see if they can find a match. Not exactly easy on the eyes, the North Atlantic humpback file alone comprises 38,000 photos of those 10,000 individuals. The process these days is aided by a TV-police-procedural-type algorithm that picks up on features like scars. The marks tell little stories. For example, an image on Jones’ computer shows a humpback fluke scarred with rake marks. That’s because an orca tried to catch it for a tasty meal. Others show scars from fishing gear entanglement or ship strikes. It’s a busy ocean. Then again, sometimes decades elapse between individual whale sightings, and the sightings might take place thousands of miles apart.

Spectators hold their noses as they react to the stench. 

Spectators hold their noses as they react to the stench. 

As it happens, College of the Atlantic’s Edward McCormick Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock, 25 miles off Bar Harbor, is a great place to see whales. Allied Whale is out there every summer, and sometimes in the winter, conducting a variety of research projects and hosting external research and student groups. I’ve had plenty of conversations with the station manager, Dan DenDanto, not because of his work at “The Rock,” as folks call it, but because of his expertise in a distinctive skill: the reassembly of whale skeletons for display at venues across the country. He’s been doing this as commissions for 20 years. Last year, he finished a humpback skeleton for display at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Eager to see what is on tap now, I head to his shop — down a long, rutted driveway through a field and woods — and pass the giant skull and bones of a 47-foot-long right whale skeleton. Inside, he and assistant Eva Drennan are stringing together the finger bones of a harbor porpoise. In the past, I’ve been here when he’s had a beaked whale, humpback, right whale and killer whale in various states of assembly. The right whale’s rib cage was tall enough to accommodate students working on it from inside.

A flannel shirt and jeans guy whose enthusiasm fills the room, DenDanto loves working at The Rock, where student projects last year, for example, included photographing seals to see if they were bitten by sharks, and confirming anecdotal evidence of increased numbers of sharks because of warming waters; building computerized drift buoys to study tidal currents; and documenting the wintertime gray seal pupping season. And that year-round hydrophone project determined that whales were in the area during the winter, information that helps with fisheries management.

“Students come up with an idea and they work with someone who helps them,” he says. “Most stay the whole summer. They become self-reliant. This program instills students with a sense that they’re seeing things in real time.”

Dan DenDanto makes use of
 cleaned whale bones to assemble educational exhibits.

Dan DenDanto makes use of cleaned whale bones to assemble educational exhibits.

Another key staffer at Allied Whale is Rosemary Seton, the organization’s marine mammal stranding coordinator, responsible for fulfilling the organization’s mandate as a federally designated marine mammal stranding responder.

Recently, she was networking with colleagues to examine two “unusual mortality events,” a federal government term for significant die-offs of a marine mammal population. Since January 2016, 62 humpback whales have been found dead from Maine through Florida. Since June 2017, 18 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead off the east coast of Canada and the United States, with five live whale entanglements spotted off Canada. The right whale situation is particularly alarming given the animal’s highly endangered status.

“We have a robust population of North

Atlantic humpback whales that can absorb that mortality,” Seton says. “But for right whales, there are only about 450 left.”

The investigation of a whale’s death is a chance to see all of Allied Whale kicking in — and is a powerful sensory experience. A few years ago, Allied Whale collected a dead sperm whale that was 50 feet long and 100,000 pounds, and necropsied it on a Bar Harbor beach. The carcass was in advanced decay and extremely aromatic, and the necropsy itself was a fascinating exercise in logistics.

College of the Atlantic research vessel Capt. Toby Stephenson towed the carcass to the secluded beach at midnight, to catch the high tide. DenDanto brought in the necropsy team at dawn. Outfitted in protective suits, face masks, gloves, mud boots and eyewear, staffers and students flensed enormous chunks of flesh that a bulldozer lifted. As the beach became greasy with the animal’s blubber and spermaceti oil, spectators held their noses. Team members swarmed around and onto the rotted carcass. Also involved were a medical team, photography team, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The whale’s skeleton would be further cleaned at

DenDanto’s place and would likely become an exhibit at some point.

Those exhibits are another link between the research community and the public.

“Whales are wonderful opportunities to teach the public about the importance of the ocean,” Todd says. “What better way to start that conversation than this massive, beautiful animal?”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.



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