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Taking the Right Approach to Whales

A conversation with marine mammal researcher Michael Moore

Michael Moore grew up in England, where he trained as a veterinarian. He began his career as a marine mammalogist, working seasonally in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. Moore then followed his wife-to-be, Hannah, back to her New England home. He arrived in Woods Hole in 1985, first at the Marine Biological Laboratory and then at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution as an MIT/WHOI Joint Program student.

Since becoming a WHOI Research Specialist in 1995, his interests have expanded to encompass a variety of human impacts on marine vertebrates. He is also the veterinarian for the Cape Cod Stranding Network, which responds to individual and mass strandings of marine mammals.

In recent years, much of his work has focused on right whales, or “the urban whale” as Moore’s colleague Rosalind Rolland calls them. For hundreds of years, right whales were chased by hunters who used their blubber for oil. Laws now prohibit whaling, but entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships continue to threaten the population.

Moore has spearheaded several studies on these whales, from engineering tests to determine how rope interacts with whale baleen, to studying the effect of chemicals and nutrition on whale reproduction. He also recently joined colleagues in launching the Right Whale Research and Conservation Initiative, a collaborative research program to advance understanding of right whales and to test approaches to protect them.

“Most people find whales irresistible,” said Mark Johnson, an electronics engineer and frequent collaborator with Moore. “Michael is one of those people who bring folks together to do something about protecting them.”

Moore spoke on diverse topics with Currents recently: about losing his sense of smell in veterinary school; about sailing 18,000 miles with his wife and four sons to survey whale habitat; and about how scientists and the public can help the right whale population recover.

Q: What prompted you to study right whales?
Moore: I got into right whales by mistake. I had conducted my graduate work [in the lab of John Stegeman of the WHOI Biology Department] on tumors in winter flounder caused by high levels of chemicals in their systems, and I began looking at chemical impacts in marine mammals. For comparison, I needed an animal with low levels of exposure, and I thought right whales would be that species, given their diet. Turns out I was wrong. So in the process of studying toxins in the whales, I was bombarded with questions from other researchers about the species.

Q: What questions did they ask?
Moore: Why are these whales skinny, and does that impact the way they reproduce? Why are they washing up dead on the beach? Are they being killed by ships? So for the past 10 years I’ve been dragged off at ungodly hours to ungodly places in ungodly weather to answer those questions. It has led to a lot of graduate work by students here at WHOI. The more answers we find, the more questions keep coming up.

Q: A colleague mentioned that you have lost your sense of smell and that this helps you spend long hours studying fish and dissecting whales. What happened?
Moore: In vet school in the late 1970s, we would dissect carcasses of dogs, sheep, and cows. The animals would be in these large tubs of formaldehyde, and we would pull them out and work in open air without any ventilation hoods. The closer you got to look at what was going on, the more you got your nose fried. The price you paid for being an assiduous anatomy student was the loss of the sense of smell. It does give me a certain degree of immunity from decaying whale carcasses.

Q. Scientists determined several years ago that North Atlantic right whales had crossed a critical line: Their population was declining, not growing. How does a species recover under these circumstances?
Moore: Slowly, and with gradual decreases in their death rate. Work by Hal Caswell (a Senior Scientist in the Biology Department) shows that we need to reduce the number of reproductively mature females dying by two a year to reverse the downward trend. If we can develop genuinely whale-friendly fishing gear and can reduce the mortalities from large ship strikes, then there is real hope.

Q: How can we make that happen?
Moore: One step is to encourage fishermen to use sinking rope so that there is less line floating in the water column, which entangles the whales. Requiring whale-safe materials or making gear modifications is already being tried in areas where right whales are very common.

Q: Has any marine mammal species recovered after their numbers slipped so dramatically?
Moore: Yes. The southern right whale is a sister species found feeding in the Antarctic and calving near the Southern Hemisphere continents. Since most whaling stopped in the 1920s, their annual net growth rate has increased seven percent. Today there are an estimated 14,000 southern right whales. That’s compared to the whales in the North Atlantic, with a current population of about 340 individuals. Impacts on the southern whale’s habitat, including fewer ship strikes, fewer entanglements with fishing gear, and better food availability is allowing for better survival and reproduction among southern right whales.

Q: What can the average person do to assist in the effort?
Moore: Get educated about the issue, and put pressure on politicians to let them know that the public is willing to pay added costs to reduce impacts on whales. That could mean paying more for consumer items brought by ships from abroad—because we would have to change routes—and more for the lobster that is caught with whale-safe fishing gear in right whale habitat.

Q: When whales are killed, you and your colleagues are called to figure out why they died. Do you feel empathy for right whales?
Moore: I find them rather frustrating at this point. I wish they’d figure out how to deal with the dangers in their lives. It’s like having children: You get to a point where you want them to figure things out for themselves.

Q: You took a remarkable trip in May 2000 when you, your wife Hannah, and your four sons (then ages 8 to 14), departed on a sailboat for a 13-month voyage to survey North Atlantic right whale habitat. How did you get the idea for the trip?
Moore: We wanted to take a long sailing trip, and we were not that excited by the thought of a leisure cruise. So we made a pilgrimage to right whale habitat and hunting grounds. Different pieces of the ocean have different idiosyncrasies, same as land. The idea was to see, smell, and experience these places, and talk to the people who live near there. Plus, Hannah and I realized that if we were ever to spend a chunk of time in a boat with our children, the time was nigh. Any later and wings would be sprouting.

Q: How did you prepare?
Moore: Preparations took a year. We scoured boat sales on the Internet before finding Rosita, a 55-foot sailboat designed for a couple living in the Caribbean. I tore out one head (bathroom) to make room for a workshop, ordered new sails, removed countertops and portholes, fabricated a crow’s nest, and overhauled the engine. Hannah took charge of buying nearly 1,000 pounds of rice, canned hams, tinned meats, and cheeses. The boys readied for a year away from school and friends. The two oldest boys dropped back a grade but continued to work with teachers at their school. Their younger brothers completed their seventh- and fifth-grade years through correspondence courses.

Q: Some of the transits between ports lasted two weeks and often included rough seas. Did you struggle with motion sickness or boredom?
Moore: Our children had an amazing ability to throw up, and then go back to whatever they were doing, whether eating or reading. The chief entertainment aboard was more than 500 books stocked by Hannah (she alone read 135 books). The boys relished James Bond movies played repeatedly on a laptop computer. At ports, when they needed to burn pent-up energy, they swam or hiked. During transits, they climbed on our big bunk and beat the hell out of each other.

Q: How many right whales did you see during your voyage?
Moore: Zero. We knew the chances of seeing any were slim, as we were essentially looking for a few remaining right whale needles in the North Atlantic haystack. A sailboat is not the best platform for surveying whale habitat; planes work much better.

Q: What did you learn?
Moore: I recorded the details of historically important habitat where larger populations of North Atlantic right whales once fed, reproduced, and died. I got firsthand exposure to the currents, hydrology, birds, winds, and weather. I did publish a paper based on the trip, about the impact of cookie cutter sharks that bite cookie-sized chunks of flesh from fin whales off Cape Verde.

Q. You were again at the helm of Rosita this summer in Canada. What was the focus of your studies?
Moore: I joined colleagues from New England Aquarium and Trent University of Ontario as we collected genetic samples from whale bones left by Basque hunters in southern Labrador in the 1500s. This involved some fairly rigorous boat handling, but we were rewarded with over 200 new samples of bones discarded by the hunters. I also spent time in the Bay of Fundy helping to research the impacts of boat noise on right whales.

Q: What’s next for you?
Moore: I’m interested in predicting the force it takes for a ship to kill a right whale, so we will be doing some modeling on that. I’m also doing a fair amount of work on seals, whales, and dolphins to understand disease processes. Finally, a sperm whale necropsy three years ago triggered my interest in studying how they manage water pressure during deep dives.

August 4, 2001—Cape Cod Canal—The hobbit in me is so happy—home is around the corner. Like Bilbo Baggins, I feel changed by my adventures and am thankful for the wonder of it all, but there is nothing like your own soft chair, bed, and shower! As I look back at the past 14 months, it seems to fill a lifetime...The places were wonderful, but what I hate to see end is the time together. We are just an ordinary family, but we have had the gift of time. I think people usually have to survive something terrible to experience the depth of intense feeling I have just now. The love for my kids has always been huge, but now my respect and understanding is a bigger part of it. We are good friends...Now we are coming home, and who knows what will happen next? —Hannah Moore

August 8, 2001—Marion, Mass.—People have asked me what was the most special place we visited. My trite but true reply is the best place I visited was a place only a few fathers ever get to go. That place was a big chunk of time with my family, without the endless competing agendas of work, community, and other things. It is a very self-centered place, but in going there we have learned to respect and love each others’ hopes, fears, and differences.

The physical places were second to that overall gift. Of those places, the ones that stand out were largely associated with the ghosts of past sea life abundance and harvest excesses—to hear the silence and see the emptiness was a true monument to man’s greed and inability to conserve. The abandoned whaling stations in Scotland, Ireland, Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Trinidad, Bermuda, Newfoundland, and Labrador. But yet the life is there—we heard an astounding amount of sperm whales when off the continental shelves. The humpback whales are coming back. Likewise, if we can do better in the management of right whales, nature has a boundless capacity to regroup—if only we can leave her alone enough to do so.—Michael Moore

Originally published: November 1, 2004