Spacious Seas Where a Wealth of Right Whales Roam

Spoiler Alert: I happen to be in Lark Harbor Newfoundland when a right whale was found dead over the mountain in Cedar Cove.  I spoke with the locals and learned they knew of ten right whales in their neighborhood, likely not part of the whale count made closer to PEI.  While 13 dead right whales dead, ten dead in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, is a tragedy, these deaths may cause a paradigm expansion, if not shift, in our understanding of the North Atlantic right whale population and where else they go summer and winter.  Here are compelling reasons why there are more North Atlantic right whale than the reported 525.  It began with listening and observing locally.   I invite  you to add your right whale observations and thoughts in a comment below.  

The tenth right whale known to die in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was found in Cedar Cove, Newfoundland.  Nobody lives in Cedar Cove because it is on the outside of the Bay of Islands facing weather that rushes head-long across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Cedar Cove Trail Head Parking Lot is at the end of the road from Corner Brook. Past York Harbor and Lark Harbor, the road ramps up through spruce forests around table-top moors to a place known for the best beach combing in Newfoundland.

August 2, 2017, the day the whale was found, I was offshore of Cedar Cove on a tall sailing ship, the bark Europa.  We had anchored the night before in the harbor named for the HMS Lark that was in this place 250 years ago.  We cleared the Bay of Islands in the morning and headed south along the western shore before Cedar Cove.  The wind was very light from the north.  In addition to the five square sails on fore and main masts, plus gaft-rigged mainsail on the mizzen, stunsails were set with clews pulled out on whisker poles, three above each other on either side of the foremast sails.

The next day I was told of the dead whale by a crew member from Corner Brook. This was not the first right whale to perish close by the Bay of Islands.  A right whale was also found dead in Chimney Cove on the outer shore just north of the Bay of Islands. The local knowledge was that eight right whales were feeding in the mouth of the Bay of Islands. This is arguably Newfoundland’s most important estuary due to the cold waters that flow down the Humber River from Deer Lake. This is a strong salmon run with grilse, small salmon, and salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Here’s proof of a healthy ecosystem.

This summer a right whale was also found dead in the very Southwest corner of Newfoundland at Cape Ray, fifteen miles west of Port Aux Basques.   A fourth right whale was found dead on the Western shore south of the River of Ponds.  This whale expired about 275 north of Cape Ray, twice the distance north to Bay of Islands.

There were seven Corner Brook residents on board the ship.  With long night watches, we talked.  For them the tragedy of right whale deaths was eclipsed by the joy and pride that North Atlantic right whales were summering in their neighborhood.  The challenge is that right whales are very difficult to see.  They swim slowly with mouth open filtering out plankton through baleen plates that hang down in the mouth.  At times, with top lip above the water and baleen visible, a clickety-clack sound may be heard of plates hitting one another.

They lack the speed, wheel and splash of fin and humpback whales.  They do not have a dorsal fin.  Flat-backed, slow moving, a right whale on the water looks much a like floating log.  What is distinctive off the sands of Provincetown is not so obvious in Bay of Islands because Corner Brook has at the water’s edge mountains of logs piled next to the paper mill.

Eight right whales were individually known.  Two of the dead whales had unique callosity markings, clearly not of the seen whales.  The other two whales found dead were too far gone to be individually identified.  At least ten whales were on the west coast of Newfoundland, likely more.

North of the Magdalen Islands a badly decomposed right whale was found bobbing on the surface.

West on the other side of the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence close by Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, five right whales were found dead.  One right whale was found on the northern most cape of Prince Edwards Island near Norway.  These places are about as far from Newfoundland as Boston is from Yarmouth Nova Scotia.  The Gulf of Maine is about 70,000 square miles and Gulf of Saint Lawrence is roughly 91,000.  These are spacious seas where North Atlantic right whales dwell.

The trouble for right whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is that it drains the Great Lakes. This means more boat traffic, strikes, and more pollution, lessening fertility from toxic chemicals that bio-accumulate in fat cells passed from mother whales to young, as well as more harmful algal blooms.  The Canadian government is responding by slowing ships and reducing fixed fishing gear to tangle with.  Only we can reduce harmful chemicals and harmful algal blooms.

In 2013 the reported North Atlantic right whale population peaked at 476, having climbed from 291 in the late 1990’s.  The population appeared to drop a bit in 2014. So, in 2015 the first survey of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was held in western portions near Prince Edward Island.  Forty to forty-five right whales were sighted.  The same number was found in 2016.  This summer 100 North Atlantic right whales were documented in western reaches of the Gulf.

Indubitably, for North Atlantic right whales the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is an important habitat area not yet well described.  In this magnificent place, there is hope (and not “catastrophic lost”) for right whales.  New summer residencies for right whales are all the more meaningful when the winter location of much of the right whale population is unknown.  The good news are reports the population of North Atlantic right whales is 525 whales.

There are compelling indications of even more right whales. The wintering grounds for much of the population is not known.  Genetic studies of the right whales calving off of Southeastern US found that when sampled again in summering areas only 60% of all known calves were with their mothers.  The remaining 40% of calves were not observed on known summering grounds.  Right whale paternity analysis found fathers of only 45% of known calves have been genetically determined.  Since genetic profiles have been determined for 69% of all photo-identified males, the population of male right whales is likely larger than reported.

For the people of the high granite outcropped shores of Newfoundland as well as those of the lobster-red sandstone ledges of Prince Edward Island, the question is not why would right whales leave the Gulf of Maine.  They wonder what took the right whales so long to rediscover spectacular seascapes.  I believe the answer is due in part to fishermen sinking and reducing fixed gear lines, and to ship operators slowing to ten knots when whales are nearby.

For the right whales once on the brink of extinction, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence provides vast watery realms where whales stoke up on shoals of plankton. For us, here are more opportunities to view right whales without disturbing them.  This is a wonderful benefit for everyone.  With right whales, knowing of their outsized majestic presence, life is better for us all.

Feeling better for right whales, I am more concerned with sperm whales of the NE Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, as I explain in this short video.


Solar Eclipse in Somerville Through a Pin Hole Brightly

High cirrus clouds stretched white gauze across the sun leaving patches of blue sky.  I freed my bike from the stand by my office in Harvard Square at about 1:30 pm.  Only the leaves at the top of trees moved slightly to a wisp of a Southeast breeze.  Riding home along Kirkland Street the breeze was only apparent wind striking me face-on. The harder I peddled the faster the wind.  The air was thick with mid-day heat.  Moving down the road had a feeling of swimming to it.

Home in Somerville, I walked my bike to the backyard.  Opening the wooden gate, I heard the “cluck” of a disgruntled black bird moving away from me from dogwood perch to redbud tree branch, and then off across a neighbor’s yard.  Sparrows flitted about in leafy trees and over to evergreens.

I went through the backdoor to the kitchen. On the counter was a pair of solar eclipse viewing glasses that my wife had had the forethought to order weeks ago.  I stepped out onto the back porch, put the glasses on, and looked up at the sun.  With such opaque glasses the blackness was absolute, punctured by a round sphere the size of the sun.  The strange lit circle was broken by a smudge of blackness on the lower right side of the arc, at about 5 o’clock on a clock face.   The solar eclipse had begun before 1:37 pm.

Contrary to the illustrations in today’s Boston Globe, the moon was on the move across the sun from right to left, from west to east, at least according to my earthly perspective in Somerville.  This because the view from my back porch is of the moon moving slower than the sun. It cycles around closer to every 25 hours instead of 24.   The sun is eclipsing the moon’s orbit, passing behind it while the moon in the foreground sets to the west more slowly.

By 2:06 pm the smudge had become an orb covering more than a quarter of the sun, perhaps a third. Finches chirped their normal mid-day chatter.  A white butterfly flew about the yard.  In the neighbor’s large six sparrows sat a willow branch. Their combined weight caused the branch to bow down a bit.  Other sparrows sat other willow branches.  Their attention was on a bird feeder my neighbor keeps filled during the summer.  I could not see the feeder, just sparrow launching off willow wands in one direction out of sight and then returning.

Before the neighbor’s willow is a redbud in my yard.  A gentle gust of wind caused some but all redbud leaves to rustle and the willow to wave. By 2:15 the dogwood and maple had joined in with leaves moving for a moment and going still.  The sun appeared as the wide grin of a Cheshire cat rolled onto its left side.

The wind picked up. Arbor vitae and red cedar juniper branches moved with the leaves of deciduous trees.  A couple of sparrows perched momentarily on our empty bird feeder.  Then moved on.

The sun came out again, blazing through a vale of white.  By 2:30 it looked to me eclipsed with the east horn matching the west horn of light.  From my Somerville porch the eclipse is twisted to the west, not perpendicular with horizon to the southwest. Instead the horns of light, the corners of the open-mouth smile, are pointing to the West.  Wisps of passing cloud give the sun, viewed through my very dark glasses, the look of smoking.  As the world turns, the horns of the occluded sun appear to rotate downwards.

The moon stands before the sun, blocking about a third of light for what seems to me like a wonderfully long time.  Yet it has only been 15 minutes.

I took a piece of paper, about 4 by 4 inches, and with a sewing needle poked a hole in the middle of it.  Sunlight streamed through the window onto the kitchen table.  I held the paper in the sunlight, tipping it to be more perpendicular to the sun.  On table top a tiny bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow square.  I got out the magnifying lens, the one we keep for reading warning labels not meant to be read. Held the lens above the spot of light on the kitchen table, while in the other hand held the shadow puppet. Through the lens I thought I saw tiny crescent eclipsed sun.  Concerned that perhaps I had made a crescent hole, I rotated the paper to turn the image. The image did not turn because it actually was a projection of the eclipsed sun through a pin hole.

The leaves and branches continued to rustle.  Raucous sparrows continued to seesaw on willow branches while cleaning my neighbor’s bird feeder.  A siren wailed in the distance.  Here a passing cloud, or passing shadow of a sharp-shinned hawk, would have disturbed nature more than did the moon eclipsing the sun.

Another fifteen minutes passed and the moon counter-clocked across the face of the sun.  The horns of the crescent sun tilted from West towards South.  Clouds thickened and the sun faded from view. I took a look without the special glass and could not see because the sun was too bright, despite the cloak of clouds. My passing glance left momentary spots drifting before my eyes.  I retreated to the kitchen table with pin-holed paper and magnifying lens to wait for sufficient clarity of light.

At 3:20 pm, an hour after a cloud hid the sun, the sun and moon continue to mostly hide while I sought glimpses of dark orb moving left across bright orb.  The wind gusted stronger confirming that clouds moving in and fronts on the move were a great influence than was the moon passing before the sun.

The sparrows quieted down either because they had sufficient seed or because they’ve moved on to better pickings.  Sunlight does not fall brightly again on the kitchen table.

3:45 pm, through my special eye protection glasses the clouds were black, they moved like waves of varying thicknesses over the sun, washing from right to the left side, where the black rim of the moon lingered before the sun.  The moon that began at about 5, if the sun’s face were a clock, had swung around to 9.  From there the moon continued to exit off to the left growing smaller in length and width.

By 4 pm, the inverted bite of apple had slipped away. Sun was round, complete once more.  Moon and sun had gone their separate ways across the sky.

NOTE: The photograph was taken on August 22, 2017 by a student of Tom Hallock, Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern Florida, St. Petersburg.  Tom and I were colleagues in John Elder’s nonfiction writing workshop at Orion’s Breadloaf Conference.  John distributed what Annie Dillard called her finest essay, Dillard experiencing an eclipse.  Tom distributed the article to his students and here it is in the photograph.  I was most thrilled and envious to see the student had found a tree with pinhole-camera leaves projecting many eclipses onto Dillard’s piece.  During the eclipse I searched the dozen or so small trees around my house for this solar effect without success. With students there are always wonderful discoveries.

Ocean River Institute display to come down and depart Harvard Square.

Last week, while I was sailing on the tall ship Europa from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, I was informed by email to remove the Ocean River Institute’s exhibit in the display window by the Mt Auburn Street Post Office in Cambridge. When I was hauling on halyards, I was directed to clear away the ducks and ocean images from the streets of Cambridge. I was up to date on monthly payments. However, after many years of occupancy, the last display window contract of eighteen months had expired during the winter. And now someone else is interested in the space and likely had agree to pay more rent per month.


The Ocean River Institute display window is a Harvard Square amenity. Inside the post office I over hear Dads saying: “after we finish with all this, then we’ll go see the ducks.” Once I found a woman looking intently at the one of the fish sketches by Dina Chapeau. She was France and wanted to know what we called monkfish so she could order it off a menu. The irony is we were all introduced to monkfish by Julia Child, who discovered it in France. I like the monkfish served at Parsnip on Winthrop.

Watercolors by Harper Dangler illustrate three ecotones, the Atlantic Ocean, Estuary and Coldstream River. At the bottom of the ocean may be seen four habitats, muddy, sandy, gravel and boulder reef. Each ocean floor has its own inhabitants who are identified by Dina’s legend on the right.

For me the most poignant image is up high on the wall. A vibrant and clean Boston Harbor with cat boat, tug boat, tall ship and people lolling about on the harbor walk. Across the bottom of the harbor image is written: Together, we are protecting environments not for self but for all.

When we’ve got a harbor of pride with marvelous animals dwelling within, it should be displayed. Must the amenity on Mt Auburn Street by the Post Office be gone because of a lapsed contract?