Sunday, June 12, 2011

Celebrating Fulcrum

 Today was supposed to be my first whale watching experience of the year, but heavy rain and thunderstorms on Cape Cod made the trip a washout. It didn’t stop me, however, from reminiscing about previous trips, especially my multiple encounters with Fulcrum, whose propeller-damaged dorsal fin and unfortunate entanglement in fishing gear made her somewhat of a celebrity in the region.
Photo by Capt. John Whale Watching Tours
            My first sighting of Fulcrum was in September 2005, when we stumbled across her on a routine whale watching trip, and because of her entanglement, we stood guard with her for about two hours as a disentanglement crew from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies rushed out to try to remove the ropes and monofilament netting wrapped around her flipper and caught in her mouth. The crew leader later told me it was the “summer of Fulcrum,” as they repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to remove the gear throughout the summer and fall.
            When Fulcrum disappeared at the end of the season, still entangled, and wasn’t seen the following year, it was assumed that she succumbed to the ropes, which had made it difficult for her to swim and feed efficiently and even more difficult to dive deeply.
            But in 2007, as I traveled with researchers who were surveying the region for humpbacks and collecting biopsy samples for DNA analysis, I was startled from gazing across the calm sea by celebratory shouts of glee from the biologists.  I had joined the team for preliminary research for my book about New England’s rarest marine creatures, Basking With Humpbacks, and I had almost forgotten about my previous Fulcrum experience.  But there she was again, this time with no ropes marring her progress.  And this time she was traveling with her first calf.  Given the stresses she underwent during her entanglement, no one was sure she was even alive and certainly no one expected that she would have given birth so soon.
            It was a good sign, not only for this iconic humpback whale, but also for humpback populations in general, which have rebounded from the era of commercial whaling in the Atlantic to the point where discussions are being held about whether they should be removed from the endangered species list. While that move may be a little premature, it’s wonderful to see these charismatic animals plying the New England coastal waters in healthy numbers.  I just wish the weather had cooperated a little more and I could have seen those healthy whales for myself this weekend.

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