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Michael Moore

As a veterinary student at the University of Cambridge conducting open-air dissections on a variety of animals preserved in formaldehyde, Michael Moore lost his sense of smell. The closer he got to his research, the more his nose got fried by the vapors. While the loss of this sense may be a handicap in many situations, for Moore it is a blessing. He is one of a handful of marine biologists tapped by the federal government to determine the cause of death for protected marine mammals, and he frequently finds himself hip-deep in whale carcasses.

While he works with many species of whales, Moore has devoted much of his career to understanding and saving the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, who are too often the victims of human activities. Since coming to WHOI as a graduate student in 1986, Moore has investigated why North Atlantic Right Whales have not rebounded in the eight decades since whaling was outlawed, while their South Atlantic cousins have. Moore and colleagues have come to recognize that the species mostly lives in a highly “urbanized” ocean, where ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements are a constant peril.

But Moore isn’t just investigating the problem; he is working on solutions. He has studied various pharmacological and mechanical tools to help restrain or sedate large whales so that they can be cut loose from ropes and fishing gear. These efforts include the development various harnesses to restrain a whale’s fluke while disentanglement teams work, as well as the development of methods of injecting large whales with sedatives or antibiotics. Recently Moore participated in using a novel dart system to deliver antibiotics to two humpback whales in the Sacramento River in California. This was the first time antibiotics have been given to free ranging whales. Moore and colleagues Becky Woodward and Jeremy Winn also model the interactions between fixed fishing gear and large whale body parts and conducts engineering tests to determine how rope interacts with whale baleen.

Moore also works with colleagues to understand the impact of ship strikes on whales. Using the lower jaw of the right whale as a test case, he and a graduate student, Regina Campbell-Malone, are modeling the physical and material properties of blunt force collision between right whales and large ships. The project should establish a better understanding of how much—or how little—force it takes for a ship to kill a whale...data that could help policymakers set new guidelines about shipping lanes and speed limits.

Moore and a graduate student, Carolyn Angell have even analyzed the reproductive health of the right whale. Theorizing that low birth rates might be the result of malnourishment, he undertook a study of the thickness of blubber in live female whales, pioneering the use of non-invasive ultrasound devices suspended from a long carbon fiber pole. Moore and colleagues have found the North Atlantic Right Whales often carry significantly less fat stores than the South Atlantic whales, making pregnancy unlikely.

Originally published: June 6, 2007