In preparing to write this story, we found that Dr. David Wiley’s August 15 presentation, hosted by the Marion Institute, covered a wide range of interconnecting topics. From the types of climate events he dubbed as “chaos” to migration habits of Right Whales to feeding and hunting strategies of the whales and of the shearwaters, a type of petrel who prefers temperate seawater, Wiley told a story of survival.
Wiley, a research ecologist, has written hundreds of technical papers and published articles; his affiliation with such organizations as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is a small sample of his credentials. Add to that, Wiley’s research helped bring about policy changes resulting in the realignment of Boston’s Traffic Separation Scheme, a move that set a precedent for similar changes in the future.
Wiley has been studying the Gulf of Maine and the Stellwagen Bank for decades in his quest to gather data on the interconnectedness of marine animals, especially the Right Whale and the shearwaters. Uniting these two disparate species in a fight for life is a third animal, the sand lance, a seemingly bit player in the daily battle of survival but in reality, the star of the show. Whales and shearwaters feed on sand lances.
Wiley told the full house at the Marion Music Hall that sand lances live on the sandy bottom of the now-protected Stellwagen Bank. The large, sand, bank-like ocean bottom feature was created during the last ice age, Wiley explained. It was first noted by mariners in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until November 2, 1992, by President George H.W. Bush that it became fully protected, having the effect of providing some protection to the highly endangered Right Whales.
The stated mission for protecting these 638 square nautical miles is to, “conserve, protect and enhance the biological diversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy of the sanctuary.” Today whale-watching trips departing from Boston to Provincetown all head to Stellwagen in the summer to view the animals that migrate to the Stellwagen to feed in cooler waters than those found in southern climes in the summer.
But, of course, we all know that warming seawater is endangering sea animals and the tiny prey they feed on. Wiley noted that everything from plankton to the sand lances are feeling the impact of global warming.
Wiley said that test data indicates that even the smallest rise in sea temperatures is threatening sand-lance eggs, rendering them nonviable. The collapse of this primary food source may not survive acidification of the seas.
In the meantime, there is study meant to build a more complete picture of just what is happening today in our offshore world. Wiley has studied whale behavior that indicates whales cooperate and hunt together for sand lances. By pointing their heads in a downward posture and nose to nose, they ferret out sand lances hiding beneath the sea-bottom soils. Above, as the whales feed, shearwaters take advantage of the action and are also feeding. This plowing activity by the whales creates an “up welling” of nutrients, an added bonus.
An exciting development in the study of whales has been new tracking technology, Wiley said. He participates in tagging activities that collect a multitude of data points, including feeding habits, travel/migration patterns and even what the whales are hearing beneath the sea.
And what about the numbers? The increasingly sad truth is that Right Whales may all be gone in our lifetime, Wiley commented. Current estimates indicate some 300 whales in the wild with possibly only 100 breeding females. “Two thirds of all Right Whales in existence are currently in our area.”
Scientists like Wiley continue to explore new ways to collect data in an effort to find new ways to keep not only Right Whales part of the ecological scene, but to engage with those who have the power to balance human activity against the needs of the natural world.
To learn more about Stellwagen and about Wiley’s work, visit stellwagen.noaa.gov and sanctuaries.noaa.gov.
By Marilou Newell