Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay

Large numbers of north Atlantic right whales, more than 60, have been seen in Cape Cod Bay in recent days. They normally appear in large numbers in mid April, so like everything else in New England this spring they are running a couple weeks late. But in this case late is definitely better than never. It’s a sign that the population is probably faring okay despite the lack of food in their traditional summer grounds in the Bay of Fundy, and a sure sign that spring has finally come to New England.

Articles:

http://wellfleet.wickedlocal.com/article/20150502/NEWS/150509592

http://www.capecodtoday.com/article/2015/05/05/224342-Numbers-grow-whales-continue-feast-Cape-Cod-Bay

An almost-real-time map of right whale sightings:

http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/

Right Whales Return and Disappear Again

It was with a great sense of relief that I read in early August that right whales had returned in large numbers to the Bay of Fundy. During the last week in July, whale watch boats out of Grand Manan counted 50 right whales. Comments ran along the lines of “just like the old days.” Researchers from the New England Aquarium, who have been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy for 34 years, documented 45 whales on Thursday of that week and another 30 or so on Friday.

This was good news, because last year, the NEAq team found five whales in the Bay, the lowest in all the years they have been going there. It was very worrying. The Bay of Fundy normally hosts the largest number of right whales of any place we know. I have seen as many as 75 on a single trip. That’s quite a large number, about 15% of the entire population.

Right whales come to the Bay of Fundy in search of food. Summer is the time when plankton blooms in northern waters and many species of whale come to the Bay of Fundy looking for food. For many of them, this is the only food they will have all year. They survive winter on the fat they store during the summer. So in general, the whales go where the food is, and last year there was no food in the waters of the Bay of Fundy, at least not the kind of food that right whales eat.

Right whales consume a species of copepod, a very tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like animal, named Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus is a cold water species. Increases in water temperature affect how early in the year they reproduce, how long they remain at the surface (right whales are surface feeders) and ultimately whether they reproduce at all. It is not much of a leap to speculate that the absence of Calanus in the Bay of Fundy in August of 2013 was due to higher-than-normal surface water temperatures.

Looking at data from NOAA weather buoys in the northern Gulf of Maine, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, I have found that the surface water temperature has been rising over the past decade, with 2012 and 2013 being the warmest on record. That might account for the absence of food and the absence of right whales.

This year is different. The water temperature is closer to what it was a decade ago. At first I thought that might account for the abundance of right whales, for the comment that it feels “like the old days.” Surface water temperature tends to follow air temperature. So with global warming we expect to find warming of ocean surface temperatures as well, with obvious consequences for cold-water species. At first there was reason to celebrate the return of right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year, but there is now reason to remain concerned, because in spite of year-to-year variations that can be quite dramatic, the long-term trend is toward warming. And the right whales have disappeared again. That early optimism has been replaced with concern once again. Surveys in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Roseway Basin off the Coast of Nova Scotia have turned up very few whales. Five or six have been spotted off the coast of Cape Breton, farther north. Given what happened last year, I am not optimistic that the Bay of Fundy will remain a gathering place for right whales.

The question of the moment, at least for me, is what effect two years of poor food resource in the Bay of Fundy is having on the health of the population. It costs a lot of energy to go looking for food, not knowing where it will be found. The energy in the food that is found has to be higher than the energy spent to find it, or it is of no use. If the energy spent looking is higher than the energy in the food found, then right whale health will be decreasing and mortality from starvation could be high.

I have no evidence that right whales are starving to death, but I think it is a concern. What does the second year of absence of whales in the Bay of Fundy mean? Does it mean they got the word and are avoiding the Bay? Or does it mean last year’s lack of food significantly diminished the population? A large number of whales appeared in Cape Cod Bay in April, suggesting that the population is okay, but their food is moving. But a lower-than-normal number of calves was born in the winter, suggesting the population is experiencing some difficulties.

Researchers have depended on the predictability of right whales’ presence in the Bay of Fundy to monitor and study them and estimate their total numbers. They photograph them, count them, identify individuals, collect DNA and poop, and thus have gathered a very complete picture of the size and structure of the right whale population. If right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy, it will take significant human effort to figure out where they are going to find food, in order to continue to monitor their health and well-being.

If they drop off of our radar, we will have little idea how they are faring, except to continue to observe how many females appear off the coast of Florida in the winter to give birth, and perhaps to monitor them more closely in Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. Right whales have survived being hunted to near extinction. They have surely survived other changes in their food supply. We can hope and believe they are adaptable enough to survive this one. But it would be nice to know. Whale researchers don’t seem to be very good at remaining dispassionate. It’s not an easy job. You have to care a lot to go out every day in a tiny boat and spend long days searching for and documenting whales. The blog posts from the New England Aquarium convey real concern and a sense of loss.

Seeing the right whales each year is one sign that this precious Earth is still holding things together, despite all the stress it is experiencing at our hands. Not seeing them is very worrying, and for me feels like a sign that we are pushing the Earth beyond its limits and will be facing many more losses in the years to come.

A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, ANYTHING but THIS!

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.

Where’s a Whale to Go?

The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.

It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.

http://rightwhales.neaq.org/2012/02/right-whale-researchers-make.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/08/shipping-noises-chronic-stress-whales

Chronic stress wreaks havoc with general health, as most of us know. Shipping noise is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the oceans, so where is a whale to go to get some peace?

I have several connections to this story that make it personally resonant.

My very first encounter with a whale was in 1995, in the Bay of Fundy.

That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children’s sermon called Digby the Whale.

I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother’s death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother’s insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.

My mother’s story anticipates the NEAQ’s research finding: “Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise.”

Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.

Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother’s story:

“Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world.”

That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.

If you read my last post you’ll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don’t always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.

In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a “smart” meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?

I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?

But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.

Voice of the Earth

Cynthia and I are getting ready to lead a workshop called Voice of the Earth at the Partnering With a Green God conference in Sharon, CT. I always find it challenging to speak in public about these things, because I feel I know and understand so little. But going into it does have a clarifying effect.

I’m not clear about much, but I am clear about this:

In the real world, there is no past and no future, only this that is happening right now. Past and future are ideas. Dwelling exclusively in the idea of past or future blinds us catastrophically to what is happening right now, Life in all its wonder and complexity.

Our senses do not give us an accurate representation of reality. The known is dead and gone. The living truth is unknowable. To live in devotion to the known, the mental image, is to live in conflict with reality, because reality is dynamic, always new, and the known image is static, always old. We do tremendous violence trying to force reality into the mold of our image of reality. Reality cannot be known, only lived in not-knowing. We think we know, but we do not know.

Bringing awareness to our predicament, without any thought-movement away from it whatsoever, brings some other factor into the equation. I call it “emptiness.” When emptiness is discovered, it is at least possible that the mind will reboot, will alter its operating system in the face of the fact that its own behavior is clearly causing all the misery. But this must be seen in its actuality, not believed in theory.

Beyond this, I really don’t know much. That “other factor” — which I call variously emptiness, or stillness, or silence — remains mysterious and can become an obsession in itself, because it feels so big, so godlike, so far beyond one’s own puny brain. How else could it be capable of seeing the truth, when the brain is so good at dodging the truth? Attention, or awareness, or emptiness, is very mysterious indeed. One wants that in one’s life. But turning it into an object of pursuit or belief or another identification creates a real barrier to being present to the whole of what is right now.

Emptiness is always present. Whether one thinks of it as something that is present to everything, or as the space in which everything is happening; emptiness remains, ungraspable, unknowable, always present.

One other thing that I feel is that we humans have a very hard time letting down our guard enough to allow the experience of others to impact us – other people, other animals, other life forms. It is only through love that we can enter into that experience. We have to want the other to be the other, to be what they are, and not diminish the other with our desire, or our fear. We can never know the other through analysis, dissection, or the absolutely-common projection of ourselves onto them. To know the other at all we must set ourselves aside and listen. To enter into the truth of the other involves a loss of self most people find impossible or too frightening to contemplate except perhaps in a very few relationships.

Paradoxically, becoming grounded in deep emptiness creates the feeling of oneness — that I am the whole movement of life — and at the same time exposes my deep ignorance about what the world really is. In regard to the encounter with whales, I feel that we are each other, and at the same time that the whale is so foreign, so other, that the relationship requires the greatest possible caution and respect. And so it is with the whole world. We are each other, and we don’t know anything about each other. Respect and caution and undivided attention are essential.

I seek the sanctification (to make holy, to make whole) of the whole world. The human economy seeks the commodification (to buy and sell, to make convenient) of the world. How with this violence can the sacred compete? How with the stimulation of the senses can the depths of not-knowing compete? How with all this agitation can stillness compete? I feel like an ambassador of two unknowable realms, deep silence and the lives of the whales and seals. I know nothing about either and yet I feel myself to be an ambassador for them, since they do not often speak for themselves in the human world. They can. Of course they do, but humans don’t generally listen.