The Urban Whale|
North Atlantic Right Whales
at the Crossroads
Scott D. Kraus and Rosalind M. Rolland, Eds.
Harvard University Press, $19.95, 543pp
It was the title of the book that first caught my eye. There was a disconnect between the two words "urban" and "whale." I briefly pictured an enormous black, finned and tailed animal in the back seat of a yellow cab speeding down Broadway. Nope, doesn't compute. Back in the real world they were safely swimming in their own spacious, uncluttered habitat, the Atlantic Ocean, right? Wrong! It turns out that the Atlantic Ocean, at least the areas inhabited by right whales (the subject of this book), has become "urban," which is to say, crapped up and crowded with our traffic, noise, fishing gear, garbage, sewer effluent, chemicals and all the other poisonous by-products of our sloppy homo-centric misbehavior.
The Urban Whale is a compilation of the work of 35 researchers, scientists and others from 18 institutions in North America and Europe over a period of 25 years. Nearly hunted to extinction by 1700s, the right whale was essentially written off by the 1950s. But then, a few right whales were sighted in the course of Woods Hole acoustic studies in the 1960s. And in 1979 a survey of marine mammals and turtles was commissioned by the U.S. Minerals Management Service between Cape Hatteras and Nova Scotia in advance of oil exploration. Apparently right whales had survived...approximately 200 right whales were sighted.
Today right whales still inhabit the coastal waters of the North American continent between the Bay of Fundy and northern Florida, swimming seasonally up and down the whole east coast to feed and calve. Over the past 25 years individual whales have been identified, photographed, cataloged by number (and often named). Their numbers are small...about 350 individuals.
Collisions with ships and entanglement in static fishing gear are the two most common causes of death...and they are usually slow and painful. "...the North Atlantic is perhaps the world's most heavily industrialized ocean with widespread shipping, fishing, and mineral exploration and extraction. Its coastal zones receive some of the highest levels of agricultural and industrial runoff in the world. (The Baltic, Mediterranean and sections of the North Pacific may be equivalently degraded.) The noise pollution alone is staggering. "...the chance of two animals hearing each other today has been reduced to 10 percent of what it was one hundred years ago." With a history and current environment like that, it's a miracle there are 350 whales left.
In 17 chapters various researchers recount their adventures and their findings according to their disciplines and opportunities. Specific chapters cover photo identification cataloging, food supply, reproduction, whale genetics and health, climate change and of course the major causes of death, vessel strikes and gear entanglement--truly heartbreaking stories. But the book is far from gloom and doom. In fact, the work is exciting to follow and the reader is constantly amazed by determination and devotion with which the researchers (both professional and volunteer) pursue their work. They are people to be proud of.
Monitoring 350 whales, who, under optimal conditions live one hundred years or so under water, is a daunting project. Survival of the specie is in doubt but the efforts are ongoing. The Urban Whale makes its case with utmost clarity. It neither bores nor overwhelms. The prose is reportorial, in some cases down-right conversational. No jargon is employed, nor are there any statistical blizzards. The only chapter I skimmed was the one on mathematical modeling...I'm allowed. I'm an English major, after all. There are also no sales pitches or guilt trips. The presentation is neutral, although, over and over, you find yourself rooting wildly for the whales and their investigators who continue to devote their careers in this teetering cause.