Song of the Whale

Reminiscing with a friend recently, we both relished the memory of going whale watching off the Massachusetts coast in the early ‘90s. Chris remembers similar trips as an opportunity to lose his lunch over the side of the boat, but for those of us not prone to sea sickness, whale watching is awe-inspiring. My friend and I marveled as right whales breached the waves, performed a fluid, arcing rainbow flip, shining as if diamond encrusted, as sunlit droplets sluiced off their sleek bodies. They slipped under the sea to resurface and repeat the performance moments later. It’s even more wonderful if you glimpse a mother and her calf. Stunning as these memories are I would have filed them somewhere in the dusty recesses of my mind had it not been that the research vessel, Song of the Whale chose to dock in our town’s marina.

Ambling down the docks, I passed this impressive cutter several times until it piqued my interest sufficient for me to find out more. It’s a 72 foot steel yacht equipped with all the latest technology for finding and recording whales, operated by a team of both crack scientists and exceptional sailors. Song of the Whale is the world’s quietest research vessel. Obviously, it has powerful engines since it’s conducted research projects as far afloat as Antarctica and the Mediterranean, but when it’s in the vicinity of whales it operates under sail, so the whales’ sonar is not impacted by the presence of the scientists.

I tried, without success, to discover in what project they are currently engaged. I can hazard a guess that, as in previous visits to the Eastern seaboard, they are tracking that same species of right whales that Linda and I enjoyed all those years ago. Right whales were endangered back then, but their numbers have now dwindled to fewer than 350. Before the climate crisis, right whales tracked between the Floridian and New England coastlines, now they range further into Canada in search of cooler waters. They keep close to the shore as they migrate making them a target for entanglement in fishing nets and being struck by watercraft. This, along with pollution, is responsible for the precipitous decline in population. In previous projects, Song of the Whale has marked shipping lanes in harbors in such a way as to minimize collisions with the whales, and the Coast Guard now requires slow speeds in areas where whales are active. There’s been a minor reprieve for these gentle mammals, (11 calves have been born to

Jean Goulden Blog - Song of the Whale

Song of the Whale
Photo credit: MarineConservationResearch.org

date this breeding season, insufficient to restore the population, but more than in some recent years.)  Further work needs to be done in the Gulf of St Lawrence with its heavily trafficked harbors and ports as the whales reach these waters.

Given the war in Ukraine, it’s unlikely Song of the Whale will be headed to the Black Sea any time soon. This is an area where whales and cetaceans, beat the odds, retaining healthy populations over 200 years, until the outbreak of war. Russian submarines and increased naval activity have interrupted the animals’ sonar systems, caused serious disorientation and mass beachings. Much of the coastline is inaccessible due to the hostilities, but thousands of dolphins and whales have died. Of course, the human tragedy is even more appalling, and yet the entire ecosystem of the Black Sea is severely  threatened.  Another reminder of the interdependence of life on our precious planet.

Last month, a humpback whale delighted us leaping out of our inland waters. It’s so far adrift from its habitual pattern, (on account, most likely, of our warming oceans,) that while I gasp at the spectacle, I also hope there are many other researchers protecting the “Song of the Whale. “ 

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