By Mark Haver, NOAA Fisheries Communications Intern
You’re the last boat on the water on a summer evening. The setting sun breathes a rich orange reflection over the water’s surface. A killer whale dorsal fin calmly breaks the orange sheet. It is not just the sighting that makes the experience so exciting– it is the passion for these marine mammals that the crew shares with you, helping you to connect with the place and the wildlife viewing experience, and inspiring conservation action on behalf of wildlife and wild spaces. This is an experience that belongs to many, thanks to the incredible work of Whale SENSE captains and crew members.
This year, Whale SENSE is recognizing one captain and one naturalist/guide in Alaska for their leadership in the realm of marine stewardship. With the outstanding efforts of naturalist Wendy Byrnes and Captain Heather Rothenberger, passengers are rewarded with the education and conservation messages so integral to the Whale SENSE mission.
NOAA Fisheries Whale SENSE coordinator for the Alaska Region, Suzie Teerlink, reached out to companies involved in the program to ask crew members to nominate captains and naturalists/guides who exemplified the standards and responsible practices set forth through the Whale SENSE program. Although there were many nominations describing excellent personnel, it was clear that Wendy and Heather are outstanding leaders on the water, demonstrate the principles of Whale SENSE, and are respected by co-workers and passengers alike.
We interviewed each to learn more about their experiences and perspectives.
Wendy is from Alaska and has a background in music. During the winter, she works as a special educator for the public school district. She has been an example of how citizens can get involved in marine mammal research. Her passion for conservation and whales grew during her time at Gastineau Guiding Company, where she still works.
The part of her job she enjoys most is simply teaching people about whales and helping them to care about them. She references how humpback whales almost went extinct in the 1980’s and how education was able to help support the species’ repopulation. She loves working for her company because of its focus on sustainability and its emphasis on conservation.
Wendy enjoys being part of Whale SENSE because it furthers her ability to foster deeper relationships between the public and whales. As told in the history of the humpback, public concern contributed to the whales’ recovery. Wendy knows that if she can inspire that same sense of care and commitment, then her job is complete.
Whale SENSE matters to her because it emphasizes her beliefs: the importance of ocean stewardship, providing educational resources to the public, encouraging sustainable whale watching, and inspiring people to participate in the mission of conservation. Wendy says, “You don’t have to have a background in ocean science to be excited about the environment.” Not only does she reinforce this mantra in her personal life, but she works hard to share such excitement with those on her whale watching tours.
Heather first started as a tour boat captain in 1998. She’s spread her message of conservation in Hawaii as well as Alaska. According to a TripAdvisor review, “Heather is dedicated to providing her passengers with an unparalleled experienced that conveys the importance of marine conservation.” When she’s not giving whale watching tours, she works as a school nurse.
Heather loves doing what she does because her job is so dynamic: “it’s always something new.” She is proud to work for her company, Kenai Fjords Tours, which has always emphasized responsible whale watching operations. Thanks to Whale SENSE and Kenai Fjords Tours, Heather knows that she and her fellow captains understand how to act safely and responsibly around whales.
Interacting with passengers aboard her vessel has allowed Heather to convey how important it is to know and understand whales. She asks, “How can people conserve something if we don’t know about it? We need to educate ourselves about it… the more we are aware, the better.” Education is one of the first and most important steps of conservation. Heather integrates this component into her tours with a passion that reveals her bold enthusiasm in getting people excited about protecting whales.
Whale SENSE Alaska would like to thank Wendy, Heather, and the entire Whale SENSE community for dedicating themselves to responsible whale watching practices and encouraging others to commit to conservation.
Back in 2015, the Whale SENSE program welcomed six new companies from Juneau, Alaska. Until that time, all participants were located on the Atlantic coast. Now, in 2017, the number of Whale SENSE participants in Alaska has doubled! Tourists can now find Whale SENSE-approved companies in Juneau, Ketchikan, Valdez, and Seward.
I was curious how this expansion happened so quickly. So, I spoke to the coordinator of the Whale SENSE program in the Alaska region, Suzie Teerlink. Suzie is also a Marine Mammal Specialist at NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division.
“I’d love to hear the history of how Whale SENSE came to Alaska.”
“Operator interest in Juneau was the impetus to bringing the program to Alaska. There is a relatively high number of tour operators in Juneau compared with other whale-watching areas. In general, most operators are good at sticking to the regulations and there is good community collaboration where operators will help remind one another when and if it is needed.
However, because there are so many companies in one area, there have been issues of vessel crowding around whales. This has raised concerns over the welfare of the whales, the reputation of the industry, and the relationship between the industry and the community. So, in this sense, it isn’t necessarily an issue of enforcing regulation, but more about ensuring sustainability in this industry.
Several Juneau-based operators recognized these potential issues and organized to brainstorm solutions. In my eyes, these operators are real leaders. Their goals were to: help reduce vessel crowding, increase on-the-water communication, and work with NMFS management to reduce impacts to whales and increase educational standard. They came together and agreed that Whale SENSE was the program they would like to work with, and were pivotal in shaping the Alaska sector of Whale SENSE.”
“Why did they choose Whale SENSE, rather than create their own program or work within a similar, existing framework?”
“Ultimately, it was the operators’ decision to join forces with Whale SENSE in 2015. I believe that there was interest in collaborating with NMFS and Whale and Dolphin Conservation and working together toward similar goals. That is the beauty of this type of partnership, we are all interested in the same thing: reducing impacts to wildlife and increasing educational messaging as a way to ensure sustainability of whales and whale-watching.”
“What proportion of Alaskan whale watch tour operators are currently recognized by the Whale SENSE program?”
“This is difficult to answer, because there are some companies that have a fleet of whale watch boats, and others that operate mainly as a fishing charter but offer whale watching tours. One company to another is not apples to apples. If you look at it in number of vessels, there are over 70 boats that advertise whale watching out of Juneau. Of those, approximately 75% belong to companies that are part of the Whale SENSE program.”
“Why do you think the number of recognized whale watches doubled this year?”
“I think that as the program gains recognition, more and more companies are interested in participating. Also, I believe that the program aligns well with the mission of the participating companies, so the small changes that needed to be made were not overwhelming.”
“Many tourists are drawn to Alaska for its natural beauty and wildlife. Do you think tourists are eager to support this kind of program?”
“I think so. I think that people care about general ocean stewardship and want to be sure that their presence isn’t contributing to something that’s bad for wildlife. However, it might not always be the first thing on their radar. Sometimes they are thinking of other priorities first, and it isn’t until they become aware of potential impacts that, that they make something like Whale SENSE a priority when choosing a tour.”
“What do you mean by “other priorities”?”
“Some may want to know which tours are going to get closest to the whales. Once they know about the regulations that all whale watching operators must follow, and realize that all companies must stay 100- yards away, that’s not important anymore. It frees them up to consider other factors, such as stewardship and onboard education.”
“I’m curious, what kinds of stewardship projects do the Alaskan companies have going on?”
“There are several companies doing beach cleanups. Many are doing in-kind donations for school children, running educational trips for them. It’s my preference for the companies to take the stewardship project in their own direction. I love seeing companies find projects that are meaningful to them and fit within their companies’ missions and priorities.”
“What are your goals for the Alaska sector of the Whale SENSE program?”
“I would like to work on the recognition angle, versus the regulatory angle. Monitoring for compliance is a challenging endeavor, even with our written regulations and guidelines, these situations are nuanced and rarely black and white. While compliance and accountability are important and we will continue to invest in these, I’d also like to encourage leadership within the whale watching industry and create ways to further encourage companies that prioritize conservation and sustainability.”
“Is there anything else you would like readers to know?”
“In the Juneau area, the program has really changed the culture. The operators are now much better at communicating. Managers are on a first name basis, where they weren’t necessarily before. Camaraderie between the companies has improved, and there has been a lot of improvement in courtesy among operators out on the water.”
It was encouraging to hear that participation in the Whale SENSE program is paying off in Alaska. And according to Suzie, she hopes to have even more recognized companies around the State next year! You can support the Whale SENSE program by choosing one of these companies the next time you go on a whale watch, or simply by spreading the word about the program.
Written by Jenna Schwerzmann
On a partly-cloudy June morning, nearly three hundred passengers boarded the Hyannis Whale Watcher cruise. Prepped with backpacks, coolers, and extra layers for the chilly Cape Cod winds, the passengers seemed hopeful as they handed their tickets to none other than the naturalist, Jonathan Brink.
Jon Brink has been with Hyannis Whale Watcher for 14 years, but has been in the industry for longer. Along with Captain Mike, with over 30 years of experience, it is safe to say that these guys know their whales.
They first took us to an area off Stellwagen Bank informally known as “Finback Alley.” But what we actually found at first were a bunch of minke whales!
The minkes were quick. The crowd got a really good look at one in particular, which surfaced just off the port side of the boat. It was then that I noticed the “minke mittens,” or the distinctive white patch on their pectoral fins.
While we were with the minkes, we saw not one, but two very tall spouts in the distance. These were the blows of finback whales. I learned that it was special to find two fin whales together, as the crew had typically seen them feeding alone. When they are observed close together and synchronized in their movements, an “association” has formed. I heard this from the intern on board, Melissa Steinberg, who collects data and photos for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
It was Melissa who spotted the next whale. After traveling to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, near Provincetown, the boat was quietly anticipating the next sighting. It started to feel like our luck ran out, but then Melissa saw a spout in the corner of her eye. Captain Mike took us closer to the area, but we still had to wait a few more minutes until we saw yet another species of whale – a humpback!
Everybody loves to spot a humpback on a whale watch tour. This one did not disappoint. Though we were running out of time, we were able to observe the whale for a little while. It even showed us its fluke!
Jon told the crowd that we were probably the only tour on the Cape to find a humpback today. All the naturalists in the area know each other well and communicate often, in order to coordinate whale watching. In fact, these Cape Cod companies pretty much wrote the book on the whale watching industry as they worked collaboratively with NOAA to develop the measures and protocols now included in the Greater Atlantic Regional Whale Watching Guidelines.
This naturally fits the values of Whale SENSE, a program that recognizes responsible tours. Whale watch companies volunteer to participate in this annual training. They agree to follow regional guidelines and regulations, educate passengers, notify officials of whales in distress, set an example for others and encourage ocean stewardship. Hyannis Whale Watcher was the second company to join the program in 2009, after Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown.
It is clear that Hyannis Whale Watcher is proud to be a part of this program. Jon said it was a mutual decision for the company to join, as they mostly wanted to set an example for other vessels. While the whale watch companies in the area are all well aware of the guidelines, recreational boaters might differ. This is why Jon incorporates information about Whale SENSE in his narration.
When asked what his favorite part of the job was, Jon said it was educating kids. “They’re the ones that are going to save the whales,” he said. “If you save the whales, you’re going to save everything else out there.”
“Think of the threats they face as raindrops. Giving them protection is like giving them an umbrella. If you give whales protection, it’s a big umbrella, and everything else fits in underneath.”
This is great reminder that all species—from seabirds to sharks to whales—rely on us to keep the oceans clean. Conservation is only successful when people work together to do our part. Getting out on a responsible whale watch is certainly a great way to respect wildlife and support conservation, but it is important to remember that we can all be responsible stewards for the environment at any time.
Written by Tamara Lang. All photos courtesy of Major Marine Tours.
My dad tells people I work on a whaleboat.
I’ve tried correcting him. It’s a whale-watching boat, dad, I try to say, with glaciers as a bonus. Whaleboats operate off of antique whaling ships, and I don’t work on those either. I can promise that I have not hunted even a single whale, nor lived one chapter of Moby Dick. I just show flukes to people and share facts about that species. Point towards a blow. Take a picture. Go our separate ways.
He nods and smiles, then says the exact same thing the next week. I’ve given up trying.
Instead, each evening, I walk into the shared kitchen of my company housing in Seward,Alaska and ask after my coworker’s days. “Find any whales?” I ask, the question sloped like the breath of a sleeping dolphin, since I know this is a conversation I can have with only half of my brain. Yes, or no. Humpback, orca, fin, or maybe minke, with a differently-toned “ooooo” or “ooooh” for each. I nod, and flip my quesadilla. We measure our days in humpbacks, my coworkers and I, and our weeks in orca.
Our months are marked in bubble-net feeding or nursing calves, viewed from a non-intrusive distance. Anything other than that will startle me awake, make me burn my quesadilla to stories of fin whales breaching or transient orcas hunting sea lions. Whales are the markers of my summer in Alaska. They’re what I love and the moments for which I live.
They also buy me the groceries needed for that quesadilla.
On the water, whales become a necessity. I walk about the boat with my eyes glued to the water, laughing with passengers as I search the water behind their ears. Each trip on the non-whaleboats starts with an optimism as wide and translucent as a sparkling puddle, but on the rare trips, after a few miles miles without blows, I feel the tiniest pit in my stomach. As the miles go on it widens in time with the passenger’s quiet. I crane my neck backwards to look up at the mountains and cirque glaciers above, pointing them out to people and falling back into awe along the way, but the whales still announce their absence. I look into passenger’s eyes instead and see their slight impatience, dark with
the chance that they might not love this cruise, might not tell their friends, and might leave my next year’s quesadilla unbought. I take my lunch to the wheelhouse and scan the water, the pit growing. I don’t hunt for whales, but I do search for them for a living.
But then the blow comes, as always unexpected. I slip out onto the deck and there the whale rises at a distance, and I point my words and my energy towards her gleaming back. Once all eyes are directed towards the next blow I slide back and watch, because this is where the magic happens. Eyes go wide with awe, voices still and focus, and an entire deck forgets to breath. When a humpback rises through still water beneath the stark cliffs of the Kenai Fjords, words become useless. Air gains breadth. Beauty becomes moldable, colors as tactile as oil paints. The whale folds the world around her back. And all we can do is watch.
And then the humpback sounds, and we shake ourselves into language. In the smattering of words that follow I sense a feeling, wide as a whale unseen beneath the surface. That feeling is love. When I talk to passengers now I look them in the face, and I see in their eyes the love of the ocean that will follow them throughout their lives. Through each bill passed or opposed, through each plastic bottle bought or replaced, through every piece of trash tossed or held beside the ocean and for every moment of choice, the love that one humpback taught one person upon the Kenai Fjords will swim beneath both words and their actions. And that can change the world.
I am glad above all else that I love in a world where people make money from whales. Because I can earn five quesadillas a week and winter travel money from a summer of working on boats in Alaska, I handle the lines that send a boatful of people from around the world out into the waters where they’ll come to love and then to protect. Major Marine Tours, the company for which I work, functions as a profitable business, but because the owner has had a lifetime of coming to love this place and this environment that money goes through the Seward Sealife Center and the Seward Middle School to circle right back into helping the community love the wildlife.
I want to end with a story. Early this season I saw a whale almost unheard of in these waters: a sperm whale. We saw the blow from a distance, and I almost didn’t believe it
when I saw that sideways-slanted blow catching the sunlight. Sperm whales were one of the most famously hunted whales in commercial whaling days, with select solo males such as this one serving as the inspiration for Moby Dick, and their history with humans reads as the twinning of violence and industry. Sailor’s tack came bought with the blood of sperm whales. They are also one of the deepest-diving whales, perfectly adapted to the cold squeeze of deep water. To see a sperm whale is to see an alien, a creature from a world only imagination can reach.
I stood on the bow in the sun, wrapped in awe. Sunlight caught on the back of a whale who fed in perpetual night, and it was the same light that, for the moment, I shared. The whale breathed out; I breathed in. From a respectful distance I watched him gather his strength for the deadweight drop to the bottom of the ocean, and then he dipped below the water. His back rose in a mound, and then his fluke lifted gently from the surface of the water, as his body rolled straight and the blades of his fluke floated upwards into the sun. Then, slowly, he sank, until only the tips of his fluke were visible, and then nothing but the lit surface of deep water.
I wandered through the boat, struck with wonder. I rattled off facts to passengers, describing the organ in his head encasing the spermaceti oil whalers found so rich, but which served the more valuable purpose of helping him sink and rise in deep waters. I told them about ambergris, the potent-smelling substance that forms the base of the most valuable perfumes in the world, but which has the far better appeal of being the substance the sperm whale uses to protect his stomach from the sharp beaks of the giant squid that form his prey. I took apart the anatomy of the whale we had just seen and produced stories instead of lamp oil. And I watched the glow of new knowledge on new faces as we looked down into the sperm whale’s realm.
And this is what I live off of: not oil, but awe. The product I present is love, pure and simple – the love of knowing an animal with immense power swims beneath your feet, in a world you can never know. With such richness of life below, respect comes as naturally as the squeeze for oxygen in the lungs of a surfacing whale. Care surfaces, plumed like a blow. And each day in what isn’t a whaleboat leaves everyone onboard rich, our eyes aglow with the love of whales that lights our world as naturally as sunlight on Alaskan seas.
Tamara Lang is a senior deckhand with Major Marine Tours in Seward, Alaska, and a writer of creative nonfiction. Her writing and her travels can both can be followed on facebook at Tamara Lang Writes, or at tamaralang.com.
It was a beautiful day out not on Stellwagen Bank but as we called it “south of south”. We headed out towards the south on board the Sanctuary for the 10am whale watch and after spotting a quartet of fin whales on the southwest corner of Stellwagen we headed around the tip of Cape Cod and down to an area off the beaches where we found a scattering of humpback whales. We spent time with two “little” humpbacks, Shuffleboard’s 2015 calf and another whale which was first spotted in the area back in 2015. Both whales were diving deep and appeared to be feeding on areas of bait that sometimes roiled up to the surface. This early in the season many of the whales are just returning to the area to begin their summer feast. Both whales are looking a little skinny and appear to have some dimply skin going on – calves often have “bad skin” so maybe this continues on into the juvenile years. We often compare whales to humans in terms of their life spans and parental care. Maybe they also have acne!
For the 2:30 whale watch we headed down to the Cape Cod beaches in search of the whales again. The area is once again a hive of activity. On the way out we spotted two basking sharks, around twelve grey and harbor seals, tons of seabirds and our two fantastic juvenile humpback whales. The whales turned out to be sleepy this afternoon, perhaps after a morning of heavy feeding. One thing we noticed and we moved through the area was the enormous number of lobster pots. Entanglement in fishing gear is a major threat to a number of marine animals, especially our large whales. 70% of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine and 83% of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from entanglement and between 10% and 25% of our humpback whales will gain new scars every year. This is an enormous issue that needs everyone from fishermen to researchers to legislators to work together to find solutions that will protect the whales and allow our local economy to flourish. Unfortunately this threat was brought home to our passengers when we spotted a seal that seemed to be acting strangely. After investigating we noticed a yellow line around the seal’s neck and a further blue line trailing around it. Researchers grey seals typically see between 3-9% of seals entangled at any given haul out. These seals typically become entangled at a young age will grow “into” the entanglement causing major injuries as the lines become tighter. Rescuers have had some successes in disentangling seals by sedating them remotely. Hopefully this little seal will get resighted and hopefully disentangled. It’s hard to see the impacts that we have on these animals first hand but it is important to reminded from time to time that we have to continue working to find solutions to protect our marine ecosystem.
Tegan and Linnea