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Spreading Whale SENSE

We talk a lot about responsible whale watching……and for good reason. In my mind there’s no better alternative to whaling and captivity than being able to point to communities that are thriving, at least in part, due to the public’s desire to watch whales alive and well in their natural habitat. But it also needs to be done in a responsible manner, especially with the popularity of whale watching expanding. Whale and dolphin watching is now over a two billion dollar industry and takes place in over 120 countries. So with so many options it can be confusing to know if there’s a difference between companies and operators, which is why we partnered with NOAA and developed a program called Whale SENSE, which is an acronym for the key components of the program:

Stick to whale watching guidelines

Educate naturalists,operators and guests to have SENSE when whale watching

Notify appropriate agencies or networks of right whale sightings and animals in danger

Set an example for others on the water

Encourage ocean stewardship Whale SENSE has been so successful that last year the program expanded to the mid-Atlantic. Our expansion to New Jersey has seen the inclusion of Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center (CMWW&RC) with two locations: one operating out of Cape May and the other out of Wildwood. By signing up to this voluntary program CMWW&RC have agreed to all of the above components of whale SENSE as well as going through a yearly training and evaluations program. As one of our staff, Monica Pepe, is from New Jersey it seemed only right that we send her down for the trainings and evaluations that began in 2011. Because there are two vessels leaving from two different locations, this year Monica brought me along to help and I’m so glad she did. It was fun to see The Shore with a local, except now I know that it’s called going “down the shore.” Monica was the perfect tour guide showing me the shops downtown, pointing out just how close the dolphins would come to the shoreline, and the general wonderfulness of Wawa. She also introduced me to the fabulous team at CMWW&RC.

We are very impressed with the entire operation. Everyone at CMWW&RC was so great about wanting to do the right thing for the animals and their passengers. The naturalists were really top notch and excited about incorporating data collection into their job and the operators are so incredibly experienced that they not only can recognize individuals but they also have a sense for the dolphins seasonal movements. And everyone is excited to take PhotoID to the next level and develop a catalog based on the dolphin’s natural markings – which we are also excited to partner with them on.

They have given nicknames to some of the individual bottlenose dolphins they see regularly. So having a catalog will allow them to better share their “regulars”, and ideally make it easier to keep track of sightings history for individual animals as well. While most of them are identified by nicks or scars on their dorsal fins, some of the really distinct ones we saw during our time there have soft-bodied barnacles, which detach after a little while. This type of barnacle aggregates to form comb-like patterns and will prove to be a challenge for our photo ID work since they might change the appearance of dorsal fins. Last year, when we began working with CMWW&RC we provided them with a humpback catalog because they do occasionally see larger whales on their trips. In fact, when Monica was with them doing their original trainings they had three humpbacks. The only problem is when humpbacks are in shallow waters they don’t fluke up as often. But Monica taught them well and over the fall they were able to photograph three other humpbacks, one of which we matched to our Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog – a whale named Esca. Esca is a younger whale, first seen in 2009 and not yet well documented. Having these individual sightings will help us to determine if the whales being seen off of New Jersey are from the same feeding stock or different ones.

CMWW&RC will also be collecting data and photographing marine debris. In the Southern Gulf of Maine we have mapped the location of whale sightings and marine debris, showing how frequently the two overlap. We are using this to educate the public about the importance of recycling and making sure that trash finds its way into proper receptacles.