The gi­ants of the Bay of Fundy

South Shore Breaker - - Games - ZACK MET­CALFE THE EN­DAN­GERED PER­SPEC­TIVE zack.met­calfe@gmail.com

Our speed­boat, the Jolly Breeze, rocked a lit­tle with the com­ings and go­ings of the Bay of Fundy waves. Nearby was a small is­land adorned with a red and white light­house, its rocky shores blan­keted with cor­morants, gulls and shear­wa­ters squawk­ing away the re­main­der of morn­ing light. My cam­era was trained on the wa­ter.

Af­ter per­haps a minute’s wait, it turned from a shim­mer­ing blue to seething white. The few of us in the boat who un­der­stood this har­bin­ger pointed and howled for our at­ten­tion, just in time to catch the spec­ta­cle. To­gether, a pair of hump­back whales broke the wa­ter, heads first. Just as their dark blue forms cleared the waves, their mighty mouths slammed shut and they fell away from one an­other, their enor­mous bod­ies crash­ing down­ward with per­fect syn­chronic­ity. It hap­pened so quickly that my pic­tures were a blur, but I didn’t care. Af­ter this spec­ta­cle, my mood was im­mutable.

Such was my morn­ing on the Bay of Fundy, fol­lowed shortly by a cu­ri­ous pod of har­bour por­poises and still more se­abirds, a beau­ti­ful north­ern gan­net hov­er­ing over­head so as to scru­ti­nize these en­thu­si­as­tic pri­mates. Nearby, minke whales spouted, Fin whales re­mained elu­sive on the hori­zon and on the rare oc­ca­sion, a hump­back would throw it­self en­tirely out of the wa­ter, com­ing down with tremen­dous force and throw­ing up a cur­tain of mist. This is called a breach.

Af­ter vis­it­ing my hump­backs, cour­tesy of Tall Ship Whale Ad­ven­tures, I trav­elled to the Isle of Grand Manan. The Bay of Fundy be­longs to such crea­tures, and of course, the peo­ple who study them, work­ing from a re­pur­posed house im­me­di­ately in front of my ar­riv­ing ferry.

This group of re­searchers was founded in 1981 by the late Dr. David Gaskin for his pi­o­neer­ing re­search of the sev­eral marine species oc­cu­py­ing the Bay of Fundy. In par­tic­u­lar, he stud­ied the har­bour por­poise, even do­ing ba­sic anatomy for the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture. To­day, their afore­men­tioned house is called the Grand Manan Whale And Seabird Re­search Sta­tion, car­ried on, among oth­ers, by ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Lau­rie Muri­son.

The sta­tion, a reg­is­tered Cana­dian char­ity, tries to cover the costs of travel, food and ac­com­mo­da­tions for its vis­it­ing re­searchers and grad stu­dents but oth­er­wise, their work is en­tirely vol­un­teer. Muri­son ex­plained to me that their sub­jects of study are more var­ied than else­where, at the mercy of whomever makes up their core staff.

At present, some of her col­leagues are study­ing fats across the spec­trum of the Bay of Fundy marine life, and mak­ing im­por­tant dis­cov­er­ies about the di­etary and di­ges­tive as­pects of whales. An­other re­searcher is fo­cus­ing in­stead on the bask­ing shark, the se­cond largest species on Earth about which very lit­tle is known. By way of satel­lite tags, these gi­ants are be­ing tracked so more can be learned about their pre­ferred habi­tat. These same tags are also col­lect­ing cli­matic data from the wa­ters these sharks visit, bol­ster­ing our un­der­stand­ing of re­gional cli­mate change. Still more re­search con­cerns the tox­i­col­ogy of these an­i­mals, and which of our pol­lu­tants they hap­pen to be suf­fer­ing from. The more we un­der­stand these species and their realm, the bet­ter equipped we will be to pro­tect them.

Their work on lob­ster, for ex­am­ple, sug­gests that this species’ most fer­tile mem­bers are not in fact the ex­ceed­ingly large ones of ad­vanced age, as has been widely as­sumed for some time. In­stead, the midrange lob­sters, the ones we tar­get read­ily in our fish­eries, might be most re­spon­si­ble for replenishing lob­ster pop­u­la­tions year af­ter year. It’s a star­tling pos­si­bil­ity in need of con­tin­ued at­ten­tion.

Muri­son her­self keeps a close eye on the right whales which, un­til re­cently, showed the Bay of Fundy a great deal of an­nual pa­tron­age. Now that they’ve be­gun spend­ing their sum­mers in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, she lends her ex­per­tise to ed­u­ca­tion about the dan­gers of ac­tive and aban­doned traps en­tan­gling right whales, about the care­ful place­ment of such traps to avoid them and about the al­ter­na­tive trap tech­nolo­gies be­ing taken ever more se­ri­ously.

She makes par­tic­u­lar note of “acous­tic re­lease,” where a trap’s rope is coiled up harm­lessly un­der­wa­ter un­til un­rav­elled by an acous­tic pulse for later col­lec­tion. In this way, fewer ropes await our right whales, and fewer traps are lost as a re­sult. Much of their re­search is ded­i­cated to con­ser­va­tion in this fash­ion.

A great deal of im­por­tant work is be­ing con­ducted at this sta­tion, and in the Fundy wa­ters sur­round­ing its is­land of choice. What amazes me is the shoestring on which their re­search is de­pen­dent, and how few peo­ple seem to have heard of them. Here’s an­other char­ity who need us as much as we need it.

Zack Met­calfe

A hump­back whale in the Bay of Fundy.

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