Laurie Murison – everything you ever wanted to know about North Atlantic right whales

“Most of our knowledge about the North Atlantic right whale has been lost and is only now slowly being re-learned.” This is not surprising considering that this animal is one of the rarest on Earth and has been to the brink of extinction and back, with an unknown future ahead of it.

Having studied right whales since 1982, Laurie is in a good position to know a fair few things about them. “Right whales are as active as humpbacks; they breach, they slap their pectoral fins against the water, they show their flukes when they dive”, (of course this means they are floaters, not sinkers!) They are skim feeders and, depending where their food is quite literally hanging out, they will feed underwater or at the surface. They feed mostly on a type of zooplankton called copepods, (all baleen whales feed on zooplankton as opposed to phytoplankton, which makes them carnivores not herbivores). Right whales are big, round, slow moving animals, not sleek and fast like the fin whale, so they do not need to have a dorsal fin to stabilise their body in the water. They also sport strange white lumps on their heads called callosities. These hairy protuberances do not inhibit the whale’s feeding; right whales have to move slowly to feed with their mouth open, water exits their mouth through the baleen in a turbulent fashion, and therefore, streamlining is not a necessity on their heads. “It is possible that the callosities actually facilitate their feeding, with the whiskers enabling them to sense patches of plankton.”

There are three genetically separate species of right whale; North Atlantic, Pacific and Southern. The North Atlantic right whales are the smallest, in fact all whales in the North Atlantic are smaller than their cousins in other oceans. “It is thought this is due to the availability of food for longer periods of time, which means you do not need as many fat reserves to keep you going in lean times. In essence, when a whale needs to fast for a longer time, it needs a bigger backpack of food and a larger body to carry that backpack.” In the North Atlantic, right whales are prone to irregular meanderings to different parts of the ocean and do not follow set migratory patterns. “They go walkabout frequently. They are very cool!”

Right whales are social animals, with groups constantly coming together and breaking up again. They form ‘courtship groups’ all year round of two to fifty individuals. A female is the focus of the group, with males vying for her attention. “Males compete simply by the quantity of sperm they produce. They therefore have huge testes and continuously high testosterone as they mate throughout the year, which means they are always on the lookout for a female!” The female will mate with multiple males and whoever has the highest production of sperm is most likely to flush out the competition and father a calf. Females only calve in the winter, so although they mate at any time, they only become pregnant once a year; most likely due to ovulating only once in this time. “When we study primates we see that chimpanzees can be very aggressive. Bonobos on the other hand, who mate for social as well as procreational reasons, are incredibly passive and cooperative. It is the same with right whales; their mating is probably as important socially as it is for procreation.”

Calves stay with their mums for a year. During this time they learn independence, as the mum may leave them to feed for up to two hours. “They will generally hang out, experiment with odd movements like surfacing tail first, play with seaweed and take naps. If they start to miss mum, they will look around, vocalise and, if that does not work, start slapping the water and breaching to get her attention.” Mums and calves sometimes form nursery groups where several juveniles play together and then try to figure out whose mum has just arrived to collect one of them. Like all whales, right whales are voluntary breathers which means they cannot sleep for long or they will die from suffocation. Instead, youngsters learn to become experts at taking naps. As adults they surface to breathe, digest their food, and nap for a few minutes, after which they will “Shake, stretch and dive down to feed again”.

Given the very small number of North Atlantic right whales alive, 450-500 individuals, it is probable that “Everyone knows everyone!” Researchers also know each individual and are able to study families, relationships and social structures more easily because of the small population.

But what took right whales to the brink of extinction? Laurie told me their story.

An amazing property of whale blubber, as far as humans are concerned, is that it becomes oil when cooked and, after cooking, remains an oil rather than reverting back to fat. It also burns extremely well and cleanly. These valuable properties may have initially been discovered by accident. Maybe one day a dead whale washed ashore and ‘cooked’ in the sun, turning its blubber into oil, and was later found by a human who had a brilliant idea…

“Commercial whaling began 1,000 years ago in the Bay of Biscay.” The Basque people became efficient hunters. They had stations on shore to spot whales and alert the long boats, the boatsmen rowed out, killed the whale and pulled its body back to shore. The blubber was then cut into chunks and placed in a big pot suspended over a fire. Right whales were the ‘right whale to hunt’ (this is how they got their name), for several reasons. They came close to shore, were slow moving, spent time at the surface and, because of the density of their blubber, floated when dead, allowing for easy transportation back to shore. Most importantly, their bodies yielded huge quantities of oil.

In the 1400’s Europeans started hunting right whales and bowheads further afield in North American waters. “During the 1500’s and 1600’s, the age of exploration and exploitation of the high seas, oil very quickly became part of European life.” Even by the 1600’s, right whale numbers had plummeted. Whalers started to additionally hunt humpbacks and sperm whales, but the price for a right whale was exorbitantly high. “One right whale catch could pay for the majority of a whaler’s costs for the entire year, so this incentive only served to accelerate their decline.” Whaling expanded from the North Atlantic into the North Pacific and then the Southern Oceans.

By the 17-1800’s oil was used in England for lighting, (oil lamps in the home, street lighting, lighthouses), and as the industrial revolution took off oil was needed to lubricate machine parts and allow longer working days in the darkened winters. “It is an interesting question to ask how differently the industrial revolution would have developed were it not for oil. That explosion of technology got us hooked on the stuff!”

By the late 1800’s the Norwegians had developed the exploding harpoon head and methods of transporting ‘sinking’ whales back to shore. This, combined with steamships, gave birth to modern whaling which was bad news for many species of whale, but took the pressure off right whales to some degree. Whale oil was by now being replaced by petroleum. “But when the industrial world stopped exploiting whales, the fashion world soon took over. The wonderful, flexible properties of baleen were discovered!” This material was used for women’s corsets, hoop skirts, parasols, springs in furniture, suitcases and horse drawn carriages.

In 1935 a decision was made to protect all right whales, no doubt helped by the fact that they were no longer commercially valuable. At this time it was believed the North Atlantic population numbered about 50 individuals, with about 400 in the North Pacific and more in the Southern Oceans. In 1937 the protection took effect and this multi-country agreement was a precursor for today’s International Whaling Commission. Illegal whaling still continued unfortunately, for example the North Pacific population fell to about 30 individuals due to illegal whaling by USSR.

It is possible that places such as the Bay of Fundy helped the North Atlantic species survive the whaling years. The bay, with its colossal tides and dense fog, never had a history of whaling and no sightings were made there before Dr. Gaskin’s work in the 1970’s. It may well be that whales who spent more time in remote areas such as the Bay of Fundy lived long enough to breed, thereby keeping their entire species alive.

In the 1970’s individual right whales began to be identified by researchers by documenting the unique patterns of callosities each whale has on its head. During the 1980’s their numbers grew from about 200 to 300. In the 90’s they suffered a decline, probably due to a lack of food and increased accidental mortality. The calving interval during this period increased from three to six years, which usually happens if a female has not recovered enough weight after giving birth. “2001 was a baby boom year with 32 calves being born!” From 2001-2011 an average of 22 calves have been born each year. And that brings us to today with an estimated North Atlantic right whale population of 450-500.

But what of the future for right whales, where does their story go from here?

“This is still unknown. We do not know if the North Atlantic right whale has sufficient genetic variation to survive in the long term, let alone the North Pacific species. The Southern right whales have recovered more rapidly. But all right whales face continued threats from other human activities such as ship collisions, entanglement, pollution, climate change and loss of food and habitat. We may be able to control shipping and fishing to some degree, but with the larger and longer term global problems of pollution and climate change, we have no idea what impacts will be felt in the future…”

In another hundred years time, I wonder what the history books and computer applications will say about right whales…

My next post on Laurie will, sadly, be the last. It will feature Laurie’s thoughts on our own species’ capacity for acting in a way which inadvertently has disastrous consequences, and her hopes for how we may become better stewards of this blue planet, which we call home.

Laurie Murison – a life of juggling

Laurie describes herself as an “Intensely private person”. Much of her life is lived in the public domain, as the public face of GMWSRS and the ‘go to’ person who is constantly in demand. This in itself requires a juggling act of sorts, balancing her private life with her very public one.

Describing Laurie in a few words is incredibly difficult, she is a complex creature whose depths are mostly hidden from view. Some aspects of her character which are evident on the surface are her calmness, curiosity, passion, humour, (she has a sharp wit), intelligence, creativity, problem solving and mediating skills, and non-complaining attitude. She always wants to learn, desiring to know why something does or does not work, and she always wants to give of herself. Laurie veers towards optimism rather than pessimism and would rather treat life with lightness than heaviness. She is “Happy to be moderate in my emotions. Intense emotions are draining, I would not have the energy to hate or even to be ecstatically happy”. Laurie is a woman of the calm, centred, middle ground in many respects.

An important aspect of her character is her tolerance. Laurie describes this as something which “I try to carry throughout my life. Even if I do not like someone I remind myself that there must be something good about them. Tolerance is difficult, but nature can help us learn it. For example, in nature, homosexuality is very common, it is no big deal. Some humans turn it into a big deal. There is no need to do so, it is natural in itself”. This attitude is essential for her work as a conservationist, enabling her to juggle the conflicting needs of nature and people to reach the best compromise possible.

Another highly important aspect of her character is her attitude towards living a life of giving. This comes from a “Family tradition. My grandmother had to bring up her siblings from the age of 13, and then her own children and her brother’s, my mum brought my brother and I up as a single mother who also had to work. I brought myself up in some respects and was expected to solve problems from a young age. Living a life which involves so much voluntary activity, a charitable life, is just a way of life for me. It is something I accept and do without really thinking about it”. To Laurie, the way other people live their lives is strange. She cannot imagine a “9-5, five days a week, working for someone else” kind of a life. It would not suit her; she is too used to working under her own volition for the benefit of those around her. “Most people seem to think in terms of how much they are worth; for example, how much they should earn to carry out a certain job. Not so many people think in terms of how much they can give of themselves.” I remember Bob Bowman describing Laurie as a woman who is “Dedicated to being in service to the community”, I can now fully appreciate the reality of this.

In her seven day week during the summertime, a typical day for Laurie may go along the lines of:

8am = administration for three organisations (GMWSRS, Swallowtail Keepers Society / SKS, and unofficially Grand Manan’s Tourism Association), catching up on unfinished business from the previous day
9am = attending the research station to oversee the museum and gift shop
9.30 – 11am = emails (answering questions from tourists, whale watchers, researchers, consulting companies, fisherman…), banking, checking on any needs of researchers at the station, general DIY
11am – 4.30pm = marine biologist aboard Whales’n’Sails whale watch boat, educating tourists while collecting whale photo-ID’s and data
4.30 – 7pm = gift shop accounting, responding to messages and more emails, checking weather updates, downloading data and photos, ID’ing individual whales and studying their interactions and behaviours, more DIY
7.30 – 9.30pm = giving a lecture to local or visiting groups
After 9.30pm = completing data, writing articles, blog posts and newsletters
12pm = go to bed!

This pattern has some variations, such as delivering morning lectures to a holiday camp for teenagers, doing two or sometimes three whale watch trips, or responding to an immediate crisis such as a porpoise trapped in a weir or a dead animal on a beach, but her first priority is always the whales. The only time Laurie would not be aboard the whale watch boat (apart from in bad weather) would be to attend North Atlantic right whale meetings which fortunately seldom occur in the summer.

When people ask her “When do you eat your dinner?” she often replies with a laugh, “Oh, next Friday evening!” – the only guaranteed meal because she “Works for my dinner!” at a local inn on lobster night. Laurie usually grazes her way through the day rather than sitting down to eat. She and her husband Ken talk to each other “Once in a while”, and she also checks in on her mum and attends to her needs. The one character able to demand Laurie’s attention enough to take her away from her work is Gandalf. Gandalf is Laurie and Ken’s cat. He is an unusual cat who enjoys going on walkabout, and at least once a day he likes to go walkabout with Laurie. At some point every evening he will give Laurie the look of “We haven’t been for our walk yet!” and Laurie has to leave her work to accompany him on a stroll down to the beach and back.

During the winter, when the whale watch boat is not operating, Laurie’s schedule relaxes somewhat but still includes a seven day week. Winter allows time for her to catch up on all the tasks that may have remained at the bottom of her ‘to do’ list all summer, such as ongoing administration and management for GMWSRS, SKS and the Tourism Association. During winter Laurie writes funding proposals, restocks the museum and gift shop, attends meetings and conferences, reads scientific reports, scrutinises her own data, organises and sends ID photographs to various research institutes, updates the GMWSRS website, updates the North Atlantic Right Whale Adoption Program, provides maps and updates a small booklet for the Tourism Association, prepares for the following summer and carries out general maintenance. Winters allow her to talk to Ken more frequently, try to finish renovation projects on their own home without starting new ones, and, occasionally, take a day off. Juggling finances is, of course, an important and challenging ongoing task for the Research Station and Laurie has to manage all donations and create promotional material for GMWSRS.

As if Laurie’s life was not full enough, in recent years she has also taken on a community project to fill any spare minutes in her day. In 2008, the keepers buildings owned by the village of Grand Manan at Swallowtail lighthouse on Grand Manan Island had been empty for four years. Laurie, and other members of the community, formed a charitable organisation to create a new future for it. Swallowtail Keepers Society now manages the out-buildings, and hopefully, next year the lighthouse itself. Their long term aim is to host artists and musicians to run workshops, house historic information for tourists and generally be an asset to the local community. In the medium term they are looking for a summer live-in keeper, to manage the renovations and talk to tourists. But until then Laurie and Ken oversee the majority of the work taking place, from writing funding proposals and arranging fundraising events, to organising volunteer work parties, to managing students employed on renovation work, to picking up a power drill and renovating it themselves!

There are a few things Laurie would like to have the time to do in life such as gardening, enjoying calm, peaceful times with friends and having an outlet for her artistic streak. She loves music as it “Stimulates different parts of the brain” but has not played the piano or clarinet for years. However, overall Laurie “Enjoys most of what I do, otherwise I would not go through the pain of so much juggling! I am good at it but it can be overwhelming at times and I have to constantly keep the bigger picture in my head as well as the 101 small pieces of it. It can be stressful but that stress is alleviated by going out on the water with the whales. They are my first love. I also particularly enjoy the educational work as this gives me the chance to talk about what I love!”

Laurie’s passionate life of giving encompasses both the animal and human worlds. But it is her love and knowledge of the North Atlantic right whale which really intrigues me. I want to know more about these rare cetaceans who are hanging onto existence by the merest of threads. So it is these beautiful and highly endangered creatures, through the eyes and experiences of Laurie, who will be the focus of my next post.

Laurie Murison’s top ten quirky whale facts!

1. Sperm whales wear lipgloss! You know that squid are luminescent and glow in the dark, right? And you know that sperm whales eat squid? Well, sperm whales have been seen with glowing lips as if they are wearing squid-lipgloss! What is not yet known is whether this is an entirely unintentional consequence of their diet or whether the whales are harnessing their fashionable new look for a more serious purpose. “It is possible that they use their luminescent lips to attract and catch more squid. If a sperm whale hangs upside down in the water, the squid would see the light shining upwards and may swim down to investigate, thinking it is food or a mate.” And then of course the squid will become just one more mouthful for the pouting sperm whale.

2. Blubber (which lies underneath a whale’s skin) has more weird and wonderful properties than you might at first give it credit for. You can probably guess that it keeps a whale warm, helps with streamlining by ironing out any bumps, and can be used by the whale as food if absolutely necessary. But, you may not have known about its amazing elastic band properties. Blubber is stretchy and, just like an elastic band, if you stretch it out and then let it go, it will ping back into shape again. “When a whale swims, its tail propels it forwards by moving up and down. As the tail goes up, the blubber on the underside of the tail stretches, so as soon as the whale stops moving its tail up, the blubber pings back, pulling the tail back down with it. Blubber requires less oxygen than muscles, so having blubber to do half the work conserves oxygen.” Very useful for an animal that spends long periods of time underwater holding its breath!

3. Ever wondered why some whales majestically show off their tail flukes when they dive and some don’t? Well it’s because some whales are sinkers and some are floaters! “Have you ever noticed how some people tend to naturally float in a swimming pool and some people sink? With whales, certain species are naturally buoyant and others are not. Finback and minke whales, for example, are sinkers, so they do not need to throw their tail in the air before they dive. Humpbacks on the other hand are floaters, so they need all the help they can get. They have to make a real effort to dive down deep, so they throw their tail up to give themselves maximum thrust.” So if you ever go whale watching and want to see a whale’s flukes, make sure you choose a location where you can see a floater and not a sinker.

4. Different whale species sometimes hang out and play together. Last week in the Bay of Fundy, finback whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins were doing just that. In one small area there were about three groups of fin whales with three groups of dolphins escorting them. The fin whales who usually dive for four minutes or more were only diving for about two minutes; matching the dive time of the dolphins. As they all came to the surface, the dolphins bow rode in front of the whales and the whales emitted loud trumpeting calls. “This was their equivalent of screaming in high-pitched excitement, they are not normally vocal, at least in the spectrum that us humans can hear them.” More and more whales appeared, manoeuvring themselves to join the party, and the dolphins completely ignored our boat as they were having so much fun with the whales.

5. Whales can mistake plastic for food and eat it, which may harm or even kill them. For example, a sperm whale was found dead after ingesting a weather balloon. Imagine swallowing a few plastic bags yourself… they may manage to make it through your body and come out the other end, or they may stay in your stomach, plugging it up so that nothing else can get in. “Helium balloons from Massachusetts, in the middle of the North American continent, have been tracked and found far out in middle of the ocean. Every simple little action can have huge consequences!”

6. There is more than one way to get a mouthful of plankton. Finback, minke and humpback whales eat plankton… So do right whales. But they go about it in a different way. The fin, minke and humpback whales are gulpers, or lunge feeders. “They take one big gulp of water and food, shut their mouth and then expel the water out through the baleen while retaining the food inside.” (These whales have baleen instead of teeth and they use it like a sieve; it allows water through, but not food.) Right whales on the other hand are skim feeders. “They swim slowly along, with their mouth open. Water and food enters through the front of the mouth where there is no baleen, then the water escapes through the baleen at the sides of the mouth, while the food remains inside.” In this way, skim feeders are able to feed continuously but can only eat smaller prey, as anything large like a fish would have the strength to swim right back out the front of their mouths. Lunge feeders on the other hand can on occasion go after larger prey such as herring. “Right whales can skim feed at the surface and underwater, just as lunge feeders can gulp at the surface or underwater. When eating underwater, lunge feeders only dive for 4-12 minutes gulping down big mouthfuls of food, whereas skim feeders stay underwater for up to 30 minutes skimming slowly and continuously along.”

7. A whale’s skin is quite peculiar. It is very thick (in right whales it is a centimetre thick!), so thick that if it were to lie horizontally like our skin does, the whale would not be able to feel touch or exchange food and waste products because its blood vessels and nerve endings would not be able to penetrate it. Instead, a whale’s skin lies vertically, like microscopic fingers hanging down. An added bonus to this structure is that it aids streamlining. “Water is rather choosy, it likes to travel in waves, and does not like to travel in a flat motion. The texture of the whale’s skin encourages the water to flow over it in a wavy motion.”

8. Toothed whales, such as dolphins and porpoises, have to learn from a young age to eat their fish the correct way. “Everything on a fish is designed for streamlining them in the water: try stroking a fish, you’ll notice that their scales, gills and fins only stick out if you stroke them backwards.” Now imagine trying to swallow a fish backwards… urgghh, yes, you might end up with a fish stuck in your throat and, if a porpoise does not learn the correct way to eat fish quickly, it may end of up with a throat full of choking-fish too!

9. Whales of today live in urbanised, industrial cities… Or at least, the ocean equivalent of urbanised, industrial cities. Their world is subject to noise pollution, chemical pollution, constant traffic, sonar and all sorts of crazy human antics. Even planes high up in the sky add to the noise level which they have to contend with. “When air traffic around the world was stopped on September 11th 2001, equipment measuring noise level in our oceans showed that they had suddenly gone very quiet indeed.” Unfortunately for the whales, they cannot call the anti-social behaviour police and complain about our actions. Instead, right whales are shouting louder than they did forty years ago to make sure they are heard. Research is in its preliminary stages to determine whether whales are currently suffering from stress, (which can be detected by measuring hormone levels). However, “Research already carried out on land has proven that animals living in urban environments are more highly stressed than their cousins living in natural environments”, so it would be reasonable to assume that whales of today may also be living with a higher degree of stress. Probably not very helpful for their sex drives which, considering they are still trying to recover from our past misdemeanours towards them, is a problem they could really do without.

10. Whales cheat! If you thought migration was a simple clear cut process, with whales moving from feeding area ‘A’ to calving area ‘B’ back to feeding area ‘A’ with everyone obeying the rules… then think again! “Whales in the northern Atlantic do not follow the rules. Whether they are a finback, humpback or right whale, they can do unexpected things.” A right whale, for example, might decide to pop over to Norway or the Azores for a few months, even though they have never been there before, and any males or females not involved in breeding and calving one year, may decide to stay in a feeding area such as the Bay of Fundy, or go on an excursion. “Right whales go walkabout sometimes, they might appear at Cape Cod or elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, traveling their own little circuit.” You can never be completely sure where a whale may or may not pop up next, which of course makes the conservation of them and their critical habitats even more tricky.

From my experiences of Laurie I would say you can never quite be sure where she will pop up next either… One moment it may be on a whale watching boat, the next at a teenagers holiday camp, then at a lighthouse, and then maybe in the bathroom with a power tool in her hand… Laurie’s life is a constant, tremendously impressive, juggling act. And it is her supreme powers of multi-tasking which will form the subject of my next post about her…

Whale entanglement – a conversation with Bob Bowman

A slight deviation from the planned post… En route to Grand Manan, I stayed with a friend of Laurie’s called Bob Bowman. Bob is a whale-guy with a lifetime of cetacean experience in whale watching, research and disentanglement. He talked to me about a challenging issue connected to fisheries, government policy and whale entanglement, which I have decided to add here before continuing to write about Laurie.

Bob set the scene by talking about how best we can proceed with protecting this planet and its species. He believes that the question of whether we should play God at all is an irrelevant one. “We are already playing God. To talk about not playing God is denying the fact that that ship has already sailed. We are manipulating our planet, and we need to get good at it. We have no choice now but to actively participate, or else, through neglect, species will disappear.”

Bob believes that to implement appropriate laws to protect species, we must firstly understand them, which means carrying out effective research. It is difficult enough to manage species well, but if we do it without adequate knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Bob also believes that environmental policy must be based on science, not on social preferences. “Laws must first be informed by what we know and then tempered by our human needs, thereby balancing species health and diversity with economic and cultural requirements.”

When it comes to cetaceans, the task of understanding and protecting them is made additionally difficult; whales are complex creatures, they are difficult to study and they live in an alien world which we cannot inhabit. But there are some things we do know about them beyond reasonable doubt. “Whales are not suffering from today’s whaling, they are suffering from whaling carried out 150 years ago. Their recovery today is being slowed by our actions which are based on a greater love for ourselves than for them.”

And so we come to one of the problems which whales are facing today in their attempts to recover from our past mismanagement of them; entanglement. Entanglement is the term used for whales becoming entangled in fishing gear and marine debris. It may sound like a minor problem, but it is in fact an immense one. From studies carried out on the scaring marks on cetaceans, it is estimated that 15-20% of Gulf of Maine humpback and North Atlantic right whales become entangled annually, and that figure is based only the ones who survive. With a species such as the North Atlantic right Whale, where the estimated population is just 450-500 individuals, that is 100 whales a year. We do not know how many whales die as a result of entanglement because they generally die and sink far out to sea. This death is “A slow and painful one. They become emaciated and sick. They die of starvation and infection, over many weeks or months. For example, in 2001 a North Atlantic right whale nicknamed Churchill had fishing gear entangled tightly in its baleen and around its head. The wounds from the rope were infected and festering. The whale was tagged to allow us to track it and attempt a disentanglement. Ten return visits were made to the whale and many disentanglement attempts made with equipment that I and others designed especially for this case. The whale was tracked over 100 days and travelled more than 5,000 nautical miles in that time, looking in worse condition each time it was spotted. It was last seen in deep water moving very slowly at the surface. Then its signal stopped, most likely because it died and sank.”

This problem is “Much bigger than we first imagined. There is so much fishing gear in the waters off the coast of Maine; the fishing industry themselves do not even know how much gear there is. And we know from our data that we have not solved the problem, in fact it is probably getting worse.”

In 1993 and ’94 Bob worked in Maine with local lobster fishermen. Initially they did not believe a problem existed, frequently saying, “We have never seen an entangled whale”. This is no wonder, most entangled whales are never seen, and with the distances they travel, a whale entangled in Maine may only later be seen in, for example, Florida. Bob found the fishermen to be willing, honest and helpful. Once they witnessed an entangled whale, and the highly difficult and dangerous job of disentangling them, they were keen to become involved. Bob worked with them on the principle of this being a shared problem; whales entangled in their gear are detrimental to business, he had the knowledge which could alleviate the problem, but could only succeed with their assistance. The fishermen became part of the team; when an entangled whale was spotted, they would stand by with the whale until the trained disentangling team arrived, ensuring it did not just disappear never to be seen again.

This method was effective, but as Bob says, “It did not solve the problem. It was not dealing with the root cause, but merely saving one whale affected by the root cause”. So what is the root cause? In Bob’s opinion, it is a technological one. Lobster traps rely on a network of rope, both vertically up to the surface and horizontally connecting a series of traps. The traps themselves are highly inefficient, resulting in many traps being laid to catch the required number of lobsters. Whales become entangled in the vertical or horizontal ropes and, in their efforts to reach the surface and breathe, they have to either break the connection to the lobster traps or drag the traps along with them.

So who is looking at the root problem and how it can be solved? The government body NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) regulates all things marine related, and the stakeholders who input its policies include the fishing industry, conservationists and scientists. NOAA oversees both fishing interests and whale protection interests; the harvesters of our oceans, and the researchers and protectors of them. In an ideal world this would create “An equal playing field, where regulation comes from the negotiation of all stakeholders. This should be a good solution for everyone!” However, Bob believes that in practise NOAA suffers from a conflict of interests and a corruption of the system, “Certain stakeholders can influence politicians who in turn influence the regulators”.

When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was re-authorised in 1994, it was recognised that lobster fishing in Maine was a cause of mortality in whales. A timeline and process was established by NOAA to eliminate mortality and serious injury to whales caused by entanglement in gear from the lobster and gill-net fishing industries. This process was called the ‘Take Reduction Plan’ and was to be phased in over seven years, with 2001 set as the deadline for success.

The Take Reduction Plan included strategy meetings with all stakeholders; fishery representatives, regulators, scientists and conservationists. This was not an easy management task, especially when in Bob’s opinion, “Over half the people present were not there to solve the problem of how to protect whales”. If the group could achieve a consensus on a proposal, the government had to take this into account when implementing policies. If the group could not achieve consensus, NOAA was free to legislate however it saw fit… It was rare for the group to achieve consensus.

As Bob describes it, in the years following 1994 lawsuits were filed against the government for failing to uphold the 1994 Act. Without a consensual agreement on what actions might best solve the problem, NOAA responded with a series of “Ineffectual regulations which were not designed to be effective, but designed because there was a timeline for the lawsuits. Take Reduction meetings were run by lawyers. There was no transparency, co-operation was lost. When, for example, the Humane Society began a lawsuit, they set off a chain reaction for more ineffectual regulations designed to convince a judge that enough was being done on the matter.”

For example, one measure which has been introduced is ‘time/sea closures’. This requires that an area which has historically had a high prevalence of whales is closed to fishing for a certain period of time. Bob says, “The data on where whales are does not stay the same on a year to year basis. More importantly, whales do not stay in one area for a whole period. They come in and out of an area. Closing an area does not reduce the amount of gear, it just produces a higher density of gear in the surrounding areas, some call it a fence. These are the areas which whales have to travel through to enter and leave the closed area. For example, one entangled whale was recorded moving in and out of a closed area over thirty times!”

As far as Bob is concerned, since the mid-nineties little has been achieved. The government’s own deadline of 2001 has been and gone with no decrease in the scale of the problem. The results which Bob has witnessed are a breakdown in communication and the polarising of stakeholders. Fishermen who once worked with him on disentanglement have told him they will no longer help. Every reported entangled whale might mean a new lawsuit, which would mean new legislation, which would mean increased costs and workload for the fishermen.

Bob himself has stopped working with disentanglement in America. He thinks that the degree of emphasis given to disentanglement is used as a distraction, and he does not want to be complicit in this deception. The government and the fishing industry relies on disentanglement as a solution, it is now part of the Take Reduction’s strategy. “So much publicity is given to disentanglement – ‘look we freed a whale!’ – when the reality is that there is probably only a 3% reporting rate. The majority of whales either die or disentangle themselves and suffer associated injuries.”

Bob says, “We should no longer be talking about ‘reducing take’, we should have eliminated take completely by now! It should not be that hard, it is not rocket science!”

Bob sees the way forward to be developing technology. “Everyone talks about rope all the time… But the main problem is the ineffectiveness of traps. If they were 90% effective rather than 10%, less traps and consequently less rope would be needed. And if the government funded the research and design of traps which did not require rope being left in the water at all, the problem would be gone completely.” He also believes the matter needs a bottom-up rather than top-down organisational structure to encourage co-operation and transparency between all stakeholders.

Bob’s perspective is certainly not the only one concerning this matter. A fisherman, conservationist and NOAA employee may tell very different versions of events. But this is probably the point… Surely, only when all sides to a situation are heard, with mutual respect given to all parties, can a way forward be found with any integrity. It may be that during the next few weeks I will learn about Laurie’s views and those of other people on Grand Manan. If I do, I will gladly write about them.

We shall see over the coming month…

Laurie Murison – whale researcher turned conservationist

In an ideal world, Laurie would be solely a researcher. She would spend her days out on the ocean studying the animals which she loves and sharing that passion with others. When Laurie is on the water, “I immediately calm down and de-stress. It is such a beautiful yet potentially hostile environment. There is always so much to learn accompanied by unexpected surprises along the way.”

But, unfortunately for us all, we are not in such an ideal world. As Laurie says, “When our population is on the increase so dramatically, how do we manage those people so that we can protect all the wonderful species around us? If I was a pessimist, I would not get out of bed in the morning, we have changed our earth so much, 90% of our megafauna is gone from our oceans…”

Over the years, the topic of our environment has waxed and waned in popularity; sometimes it is at the forefront of thinking, at other times it is forgotten. When Laurie first came to Grand Manan on the 1980’s, environmental matters were of great concern. Through working with whales, in particular the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, Laurie has had no choice but to witness, and become involved in combating, our collective negative impacts on this planet. “When something happens to a whale you have seen many times and come to know, and when you have to handle the consequences, you start to think about it in a different way. You see the problems and you try and deal with them, while also trying to live yourself!”

On a personal level, Laurie is pro-active, she thinks about how she can be effective, about what can and can’t be done, and how she can live without impacting negatively on her environment. At an organisational level, Laurie’s work as executive director of Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) has inevitably included conservation efforts. Laurie is intensely aware of the balancing act that this requires. To marry together the needs of the environment with the needs of people requires compromise. Often there are different groups involved with opposing agendas and conflicting needs, and somehow these have to meet. As Laurie says, “All sides need to understand what is going on, and then bring to the table whatever is most important. Trust is an important factor, as is a willingness to find a shared language to communicate with. The process requires a collaborative rather than dictatorial approach. From that we can hope to find a happy medium.”

The harbour porpoise release program is one such initiative which Laurie and her team created. When Dr. Gaskin began working in the Bay of Fundy very little was known about harbour porpoises, they are after all rather shy, elusive creatures. The easiest way for Dr. Gaskin to find individuals for study and tracking purposes was to collect one from a herring weir, as it was known that harbour porpoises could become trapped in weirs. At the time, the easiest way for a fisherman to deal with this situation was to shoot the porpoise to prevent it disturbing the herring and facilitating their escape. By the late 1980’s concern grew about the harbour porpoises’ population and it was acknowledged that gillnet fishing, plus to a lesser extent herring weirs, posed a significant threat to the species.

In 1991, GMWSRS developed a formalised release program which continues to this day. It involves fishermen and rescue team working together using a seine, or net, to free the porpoise without losing any of the fish. The team drops the seine into the weir to encircle the porpoise and slowly bring it to the surface. From there, the rescue diver can “Reach in and grab the animal and pull it free of the weir”. Specially light mesh seines were developed to decrease the risk of harm or death to the animal during release.

Over the years this program has become almost instinctive. Three generations of fishermen have been involved in the scheme and they are all trained so that they can, if needed, carry out the release independently. The ideal however is to have a team of between 4-5 people. This additionally allows data to be collected, provided the porpoise is calm and not under stress. The porpoise is brought on board a boat where the team can collect blood samples, monitor heart beat, take physical measurements, record sex and tag the animal. In this way individuals can be identified, and blood profiles can be used for such purposes as rehabilitation.

Each summer, on average between 20-50 animals have been trapped and subsequently released from any given individual weir, with the team dealing with as many as 2-3 releases per day. The lowest number of releases in one summer was eight and the highest has been 300. GMWSRS helps pay for any costs the fisherman incurs. Laurie recalled one particularly memorable release of a mother and calf where “Once we got them on the boat, both mum and baby wriggled themselves around so that could be close to each other”.

This program, which runs so smoothly today, was initially “A challenge to establish”. Laurie and her team had to spend time working with the fisherman and building up a relationship of trust. “You have to remember that the fisherman is going to be economically driven more than animal welfare driven. The solution has to be cost effective for him.” The harbour porpoise release program is unique and remains to this day a rare example of biologists and fishermen successfully working co-operatively together.

GMWSRS also inputs into the Canadian North Atlantic right whale recovery plan. In 1997 WWF and DFO (Department for Fisheries and Oceans) initiated this plan in response to the desperate plight of the North Atlantic right whales.

Because of federal budget cuts, NGO’s have carried out much of the work. A major achievement was the shifting of shipping lanes within the Bay of Fundy. Ship collisions are recognised as a cause of mortality amongst whales and with a species whose population in the late 90’s numbered less than 300, the death of just one whale is hugely significant. Shipping lanes had first been set in 1980, before any research had been carried out on right whales. In the 90’s it was discovered that the lanes had been set directly across a critical right whale habitat area. Work was carried out, headed by Dr. Moira Brown, to assess which areas had the greatest probability of a whale/ship encounter. As a result of this, shipping lanes were moved and narrowed. This is the first ever time that shipping lanes have been changed to accommodate the needs of a whale species.

This model has since been used elsewhere to reduce ship collisions. It is by no means perfect; whales do not follow protocols, they still have to cross shipping lanes, and if food sources shift, so will they. But it is an example of the type of compromise Laurie describes as being necessary. GMWSRS inputs this work with their cataloging of whales. Laurie’s research entails photo ID-ing individual right whales. These are sent to the New England Aquarium, which holds the catalogue for right whales. This data creates a vital ongoing picture of where the whales are, at what times of year, what distances they travel, where critical habitat and feeding areas are etc. Without this kind of information it would be impossible to assess the best place for a shipping lane. Photos of calves are also key to tracking them for the rest of their lives.

Throughout the years, a major part of Laurie’s conservation efforts have focussed on education. Convincing fishermen to free harbour porpoises requires education, working with shipping companies to change shipping lanes requires education, encouraging the general public to change their everyday habits requires education… In particular Laurie has “Got the word out about North Atlantic right whales and why they need our help”, and provides information, articles and training on codes of conduct with right whales. She has worked with fishermen, companies, the general public, whale watchers and whale watching companies. For example, in 2006 there was a high prevalence of right whales in the ferry route lane between Grand Manan and the mainland. Laurie worked with boat captains on how to spot them and how to avoid them as well as explaining why they are so vulnerable.

It is easy for a researcher to care about whales; as soon as you live each day studying an animal, you cannot help but become full of admiration for them. After all, understanding breeds love breeds action. Good education therefore requires engaging people with animals in a way that awakens their sense of inquisitive wanting-to-know-more, and to care and to act. Having just watched Laurie deliver a talk to teenagers I was struck by the quirky, intimate stories she has to tell about whales and the passionate yet grounded and straightforward style of her delivery.

This gave me an idea… I have asked her to tell me her top ten most quirky facts about whales… And these tantalising tit-bits of knowledge will become the subject of my next post about Laurie…

Laurie Murison – from monkeys to bears to whales

Laurie Murison says, “I am a researcher first, but then you see problems along the way and you try and deal with them, and that is how I also became a conservationist. Whales came first, conservation came later… And in fact I didn’t even mean to work with whales at all…”

Laurie was born and grew up in Alberta then Saskatchewan, in western Canada. She always loved animals, and at school she was also keen on science and maths. Her schooling during her teenage years made she aware that “We were headed for a very different world because of what humans were doing to it”. She became very interested in large land mammals, with her role models being the ‘Leakey Girls’. It was Mary Leakey who first discovered the famous early hominoid skeleton ‘Lucy’. The ‘Girls’ Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas all worked for Leakey in their early days. Laurie would read about these incredible women in journals such as National Geographic and become inspired by them and the animals they worked with.

However, they were in Africa and Laurie was in North America. She remembers thinking, “I can’t get to Africa so it’ll have to be other mammals then!” The family sometimes took their vacation in the Rockies, so Laurie had plenty of large land mammals, such as grizzlies, to choose from. So, she took her degree in biology focussing on terrestrial mammals. At the end of her course she happened to see a poster advertising a study course on marine mammals on the west coast at Bamfield Marine Lab. She figured this would be good experience and it sounded interesting, so she phoned them up and was asked, “Can you be here in three days?” “Yes” was her reply and so, just like that, she went! (For anyone wondering; that sort of thing does not happen nowadays. The field is very competitive, and budding marine biologists have to prove their worth; remember how it took Peggy three years to get her resume looked at by Dr. Dan Salden?)

The course was not until August, but Laurie arrived in April to be put to work. She carried out maintenance, fed the octopi, and “Slugged mud”. Throughout this time there were various other courses going on which she was able to sit in on. Suddenly she was immersed in the world of marine mammals, getting to know a lot of people who were already in the know, and talking to marine biology students. Her course was run by Kenneth Norris, who was “An amazing storyteller. He had the ability to really get you in to the subject and visualise. He taught me to think like a whale”. His assistant was Jim Darling who was also good friends with Flip Nicklin and whose student was Beth Mathews… For anyone in the marine mammal world, these are big names, for anyone outside it, just believe me; they are big names!

At the same time, Laurie’s brother happened to know another whale-guy, Kerry Finley, who was working in the Arctic. Laurie remembers her brother advising her that she should “Think about studying and working with whales…”

Laurie decided to apply for a Masters focussed on marine mammals, and she wrote to Dr. David Gaskin requesting him as her professor. Amazingly, with the wonderful references she had gained from her time at Bamfield his reply was, “Sure!” In the meantime, before her Masters started, Laurie of course had to work and save up her money.

Dr. Gaskin happened to be carrying out North Atlantic right whale research in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Now, right whales will feature highly in forthcoming posts as they are worthy of attention, so I will not write too much detail about them here. But just to give you a heads up; North Atlantic right whales are very rare… and that is an understatement. In 1968, Dr. Gaskin was working in the Bay of Fundy and he spotted right whales. He duly made and published a note of this in 1971 and was subsequently laughed at for his trouble. “There can’t be right whales there, there has never been right whales in the Bay of Fundy!” they cried. In 1980, a survey of the entire eastern seaboard was carried out and low and behold, an “Official discovery of right whales in the Bay of Fundy!” was made.

So Laurie joined Dr. Gaskin in the Bay of Fundy and began studying North Atlantic right whales. Gaskin was collaborating with a local fisherman and innkeeper; between them they were setting up a whale watch company, ‘Ocean Search’, to provide additional income for the two locals and a potential research platform for Dr. Gaskin. This was not whale watching as it is done today, this was a whole week’s package where whale watchers spent the entire day at sea, and in the evening watched films and lectures. Laurie began her studies in 1983. She worked for the whale watch company as a spotter on the boat, (with only 200-250 right whales in the entire North Atlantic, her eyes were very much needed), and in the evenings she was given the task of delivering presentations. Her work towards her thesis included collecting behavioural information on the whales, something which “I have not stopped doing since!”

Because of her additional workload with the whale watch company, the unreliability of field research and taking two summers to work with her brother’s friend Kerry Finley in the Arctic studying bowhead whales, it took Laurie about three and a half years to complete her masters. She was then faced with a choice; should she stay on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy which had become her home, or move on to a new place? Incidentally, Laurie met her husband Ken Ingersoll while studying her Masters; he was a local fisherman who assisted Laurie with her research, so the decision of whether to stay or leave was a joint one.

She chose to stay and has remained here ever since. The next question was one of survival; how to earn a living and also study whales. Luckily she was offered the job of becoming manager of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station which paid a small salary. She additionally worked over the years as a naturalist on board commercial whale watching boats; today she collaborates with a great whale watching company based on the island called Whales’n’Sails Adventures. And she has also done “Whatever work I can get!” to bring in an additional income.

And that is how Laurie, who “Had no intention of becoming a marine biologist, but somehow I ended up in the ocean!” came to be here, on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, studying North Atlantic right whales.

Throughout her time on Grand Manan researching whales, Laurie has become more aware of, and consequently more involved in, conservation issues and projects. As she says, “Once you get to know individual whales, and then something happens to them, it becomes personal…”

More about that next time…