Mr. McWeeny on Skype from New Zealand!
Wednesday December 4th, 2013
6:40 AM 6 Howard Street, Cambridge, Mass
Four more hours until our first plane ride. I spent the last hour catching up on e-mails and downloading all the programs and abstracts for the 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand. The theme of the conference is “Marine Mammal Conservation-Science Making a Difference.” I love this theme because, for me, science without application (doing good for society-not just making money!) is what life is all about. Two days before the conference proper Amy and I will participate in a daylong workshop about the Conservation of right whales. All three species of right whales (North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern) will be discussed in terms of present conservation efforts. Scientists like Amy, Scott Kraus, and Roz Rolland as well as pseudo-scientists like me and Zack Klyver (think Bar Harbor Whale Watch Naturalist) will be presenting during the day. Our goal is to assess the current status of all three species and to make plans to facilitate more efforts to save these three precious populations of irreplaceable living beings. But I am getting ahead of myself here because I am so excited to be part of it all. It will take two days to get from Boston to Dunedin. I’ll continue packing now and write later.
12:12 PM Five miles above Lake Erie
Getting to the airport was easy on a Wednesday morning. I actually was pre approved at security and did not even have to take off my shoes! Do I have a friend I am not aware of? Walking to the gate we met Scott and Roz and at the gate Michael Moore, Julie Van DerHoop and two grad students, Nicholas and Deada. After complaining a bit about the trip ahead of us we started right in with whale talk. Roz brought up the fact that Caterpillar, the 8-year-old female right whale with propeller scars that look like a caterpillar, was sighted in Fernandina, Florida this week. It is prime time for pregnant right whales to show up. If Caterpillar is pregnant, well, Roz put it this way, “Is Caterpillar the next Lucky?” All the Calvineers know Lucky’s story. She was hit by a ship’s propeller but lived through the experience carrying large scars. She was lucky everyone thought. Year’s later when Lucky was pregnant the scars opened up from her growth during pregnancy and she and her calf died. We will be rooting for Caterpillar that she will not meet the same fate as Lucky.
Unfortunately, Michael had a bad story about a sperm whale. The adult whale was found with multiple wraps of gill net around its lower jaw. The disentanglement team working on the whale pulled up the trailing end of the gill net to find a dead sperm whale calf. We all wondered if the adult whale was trying to free the calf and got caught itself. Stories like these are hard to take. But they are true about what is happening to whales. I am looking forward to hearing some success stories at the Biennial. I will use the 13-hour flight to NZ to look through the schedule and pick out as many talks as I can that look like they give hope. One talk I am looking forward to is Nicholas’s. He has devised a method of stereo videotaping that allows scientists to measure distances, and therefore probable relationships, in groups of marine mammals. There is always something new coming down the pike and I like the greater emphasis on the social aspects of whales. Who, What and Where is good but How and Why can tell us so much more. How and Why whales do things is for sure complex, and even more complex to study, but How and Why just might give us the information necessary to save them. Later.
Friday, December 6th
We finally arrived in Dunedin at about 10:00 AM after three plane rides adding up to 21 hours in the air and about 8 hours of layovers. Thursday, December 5th never really existed for us. Dunedin is 18 hours ahead of New England. So, 10:00 AM in Dunedin was still 8:00 PM the day before in Maine! Our half hour ride from the airport to Otago University in Dunedin took us through the most beautiful valley with acres of green pastures filled with thousands of dairy cattle (cheese) and sheep (wool and lamb chops). The hills on the sides of the valley were lush with vegetation. The smell was spring, moist and green with an occasional whiff of manure.
Two important things happened during those 30+ hours of travel. The conversations between scientists continued. No matter what flight I was sitting beside a scientist on her way to the Conference. Not only was I catching up with Scott, Roz, Michael and his students, I also met a population scientist, Jeff, from NMFS, (the National Marine Fisheries Service) working on use of population growth rates to better manage conservation, a scientist, Jan, involved in shipping policy in the San Francisco shipping lanes (much like our speed rule policy on the east coast) and a student scientist from Duke, Christine, giving a “speed talk” about her upcoming dissertation. I will explain what a speed talk is and what Christina’s was all about after I attend it. It is interesting that Christine now lives in Bangor where her partner is at UMO working on Marine Science Policy. So the conference really began before the conference 35,000 feet above the earth! I bet there have been more conversations already than there will be talks at the Conference!
I must also note a miscalculation on my part. I mentioned in my first blog that I would use the long flight to do a lot of planning. Well, even though the 747 is a beautiful plane it took off from San Francisco at 8PM that was really 11PM for me. I was exhausted and all I could do was try to sleep. Luckily, Amy and I had an extra seat beside us, one of the few empty seats in the whole plane. There are ten seats across in a 747. I managed to get in some serious “wolf naps” but nothing else except a half hour conversation with Jeff. When we got to our room at the Kiwi’s Nest in Dunedin we were exhausted. We forced ourselves to do a quick shop for food since we have a kitchen in our room and then took a wonderful mid-afternoon nap! We had chips and dips with Scott and Roz who are also staying at the Kiwi’s Nest. More good conversation, this time about Right Whale World Year and also about some of the schemes Scott has dreamed up over the years to get rid of vertical lines by making line free lobster pots. We did a quick stir fry dinner and were in bed by nine. We will have plenty of sleep for the 9-5 Right Whale Conservation workshop tomorrow in which all four of us have presentations.
Saturday December 7th
I know my clock was off a bit this morning because I was wide awake at 3AM and writing. I had time to catch up with my journal and to plan for the day’s workshop about the Biology and Conservation of right whales. I was quite excited about this meeting because the last meeting of all three right whale groups (North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern) was in1998! Amy was at that meeting which took place in South Africa. Today scientists from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Russia would share their research about right whales. There would be 16 presentations about the six major areas right whales hang out in the oceans updating the efforts to study one of the world’s most curious yet charismatic creatures. Right whales are difficult to study to say the least. That is why they are so curious an animal. We are privileged to see brief snippets of their lives, but each sighting raises a host of questions. When you do see a right whale, however, there is no doubt you are experiencing one of the world’s greatest creations! A right whale is a magnificent animal that is truly awe-inspiring.
The workshop would work its way around the world starting with New Zealand and Australia, then on to South Africa and across to Argentina and Brazil and end in the North Atlantic. The North Pacific right whales are not being studied right now but late in the talk we would be surprised by information about these whales from two participants; Keiko Sekiguchi and Ekaterina Ovsyanikova. Obviously I cannot tell all here so I will include a few interesting facts from each area. If you want, skip all the factual material about the different populations and go to the last paragraph for information about the Right Whale World Year presentation.
In 1830 there were 32,000 right whales in New Zealand. In 1850 right whales were all but extinct. There were 100 right whales a year taken in Otago Harbor (where Dunedin sits today) each year in the 1800’s. The surviving population was estimated at 900 in 1995 and is now about 2200. Right whales winter near New Zealand and go to the Auckland Islands for feeding in the summer. The scientists spend just three weeks in Auckland surveying one major bay. One scientist is just starting acoustic surveying of the area.
There seem to be three separate populations of right whales in Australia. The extreme western group numbers around 2800. The eastern population that hangs around Sydney and south to Tasmania numbers around 500 which sounds like North America. In the middle of Australia’s mid coast is a place called The Bight. Right whales here are studied from cliffs because they swim within meters of the land. The population here is about 1200. It seems they head straight south toward the Antarctic Ocean to feed in the summer. The bombshell dropped by this group is that Chevron and other oil companies are going to develop off shore oil drilling as soon as 2016! None of the other participan
We had a day off from meetings today since the 20th Biennial would officially start this evening with the “Icebreaker” event at the Otago Museum, a museum of culture, nature and science. After a leisurely morning of sleeping in, coffee and a light breakfast we headed out to register for the Conference at 10AM. We walked a few blocks downtown to Center City Mall where there was a new supermarket much like a Hannaford. We did quite an extensive shop because we have a kitchenette in our room and can eat breakfast and lunch and even dinners at the Nest. Actually our flat is called “The Cave” with curving ceilings and a half round window so we are in The Cave at the Kiwi’s Nest.
After a quick lunch we were off to find the Park that hugged the river flowing through Dunedin. Woodhaugh Garden Park lines the Leith River. We walked a couple of kilometers up the river in a light rain. There were times when I though I was in the Hobbit Movie walking through dark wooded tunnels with tropical vegetation all around. The sounds of tropical birds and smells of intoxicating blossoms (it is spring here) made me realize one needs little imagination when it comes to realizing other worlds like the Hobbit’s!
Monday, December 9th Dunedin Town Hall
Today we heard nine major plenary speeches and ended with a panel discussion on the Humane Killing of marine mammals. The Humane Killing discussion will be talked about in Thursday’s Blog since there is a parallel discussion on Thursday about keeping Killer whales in captivity. I will not try to report all the details of the day. Instead I will highlight some of the big themes that are prevalent before the Society for Marine Mammalogy and its future course of action. By the way, the next Biennial will be held in San Francisco and the one after that in 2017, Mexico.
The setting was monumental. Twelve hundred members filling the Dunedin Town Hall, which is a handsome building with 19th century charm and two layers of balconies, being greeted by a “chief” of the Maori people. (I apologize for the incorrect use of words in the previous blogs using Maui for Maori. The indigenous people of New Zealand are called Maori.) Most of his greeting was in his traditional language, a language that is quite expressive to say the least. We all got it, he was honored that our Society chose his country to have our 20th Biennial in! On stage with him were twenty Maori who sang us their greeting. I have posted Blog VI as a video of the event hoping it will come through.
In retrospect the day was amazing. Speaker after speaker brought us through the trials and triumphs of Marine Mammal Conservation over the past 60 years. They projected ahead many thoughts, some cautionary and some bold, but all believable. Of course the bold projections came from the equation; hard work + persistence = success. Some of those successes are small and some astounding (have I mentioned the Speed Rule is upheld in perpetuity!), but all are inspiring and the delegates could not help but leave the meeting inspired and energized. What a great feeling. Rocky music please!
Here are but a few revelations I had:
Indigenous people recognize the Earth is in trouble and very much want the world to be saved. We know indigenous people once lived in a mostly sustainable world. My 8th grade class and all my former students know that world is called “The Lost World” according to Farley Mowat who wrote the book, Never Cry Wolf. Indigenous peoples hope that the modern world will find sustainability a type of progress, progress toward living on the Earth with an attitude toward respecting and sharing all the wonders that surround us. The alternative path that we are on has no future according to indigenous people.
Perhaps the best example of not living sustainably that we all share the blame for was Ian Stirling’s talk. He won the Norris Lifetime Achievement Award. Ian talked to us about polar bears, polar seals and climate warming. The bears are stressed and their population is being depleted exponentially. Ian took us on a Natural history tour of polar bears. He got our attention fast about how special the bears are and how they have evolved to live in such a harsh environment. It took hundreds of thousands of years for the bears, that were once grizzly types, to change and adapt to the polar environment. But just in the past hundred years the arctic environment has changed so much, and the bears cannot change anywhere near as fast, that the bears are dying in great numbers. They are losing the ice that they depend on for food because modern man has changed the atmosphere so drastically, arctic ice does not form and stay long enough for the bears to eat. On top of that, the snow caves they give birth in collapse and suffocate the cubs regularly. This is not sustainable, and dare I mention, not humane. But global climate change is affecting hundreds of marine mammals while we watch governments sit on their hands and do little to get at the problem. According to Bill McKibben we need no less than a revolution to change this detrimental addiction to fossil fuels that we all have.
You might ask how marine scientists justify the jet fuel taking them to these meetings. I personally do not. I feel quite guilty about it. In this case I rationalize that I have to use the fuel in order to network with like-minded people. There is power in numbers and face-to-face meetings, formal and informal are the best way to do things. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had so far that have connected me to remarkable people. It is encouraging and inspiring to talk with so many who are sincere about changing the world for the better. The conference offers a carbon offset program that benefits the Blue penguins that we will go see right after the conference. We will buy some trees to help ease the guilt of flying; fully understanding this is not the solution.
There was a moving talk by Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho about vaquita conservation. The vaquita porpoise is found in the Gulf of California. It is the smallest and rarest of all cetaceans and only numbers about 500. Like many other marine mammals, the vaquita is threatened by the local gillnet fishing industry. They get caught in gillnets and drown. The solution to the problem is government buyouts and new ground net technology. Both have been instituted slowly and painfully over time and the fate of the vaquita is cautiously hopeful. This situation has been an extensive effort for a couple of decades and finally some chance of saving the vaquita has appeared on the horizon
There was a great call for doing Natural Science. “It is the Ecology, Stupid!” I kept on hearing throughout the day. Sure, narrow and detailed studies tell us a great deal, but it is the whole picture that will move people beyond denial. You cannot use the facts and figures in a vacuum. People need the story behind those facts to gain ownership. Andy Reed, a conservation scientist, sums it up this way. In the future scientists have to do four things in order to move the conservation agenda forward: 1) Make allies, not enemies. 2) Action is better than inaction! 3) Recognize our limitations as Natural Scientists (Nature is very complex and we will never understand it fully) and 4) Prepare for the long term.
Let me end with Barbara Taylors call for a new conservation science. She advocates for a conservation science that engages local people, that “monitors human involvement” as much as other species and that seeks to “manage the Commons” and not just a species or habitat. Her call for educating the masses was strong. Barbara sees education as a major game changer in the future. This made me feel very good because education of the masses is exactly why Zack and I are here. We are trying to do no less than raise the consciousness of the whole world about right whales in 2015. Not only would that enhanced consciousness help right whales, it would also help the Ocean because right whales are such an indictor species for the health of the Ocean. More about this in Tuesday’s Blog when Zack and I display our Poster about Right Whale World Year 2015 and meet scores of people who want to be part of it all.