The Marion Natural History Museum has been educating the public for decades on the wonders of the natural world. The small space occupied on the second floor of the Elizabeth Taber Library is its home base. In this case, size doesn’t matter. The museum is a mighty powerhouse for learning.
Currently in transition as the museum performs an inventory and archiving project, one wall has become home to a massive mural of a North Atlantic Right Whale. The 40-foot-long visual depiction is at full scale and intended to keep this most endangered marine animal in the forefront of humankind’s desire to protect species other than ourselves.
In the 1970s, the Endangered Species Act was created to provide a framework for the protection of animals threatened with extinction. And while many experts in the field of marine studies would agree that protection is a good thing, they will also agree there is still so much more that needs doing.
During the heyday of the whaling industry, roughly the 1800s, Right Whales were nearly hunted to extinction. Dubbed the “Right Whale” for the volume of oil and baleen they contained, they are also slow swimmers, making them easy prey for whalers.
You may ask why baleen was such a prized commodity. Consider what clothing was comprised of in that era. Baleen was sought for a myriad of uses but primarily for fashion. Baleen is strong and flexible, which made it ideal for coresets, collars, hooped skirts and hat brims. It was also part of the construction of umbrellas, riding crops and buggy whips. One could argue these are luxury items, not necessities.
Dr. Michael Moore, a board member of the Natural History Museum and a Marion resident, is also an expert in the field of marine life in all its forms as a senior scientist of Biology and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Marine Mammal Center.
Moore has also penned “We Are All Whalers,” a book chronicling the plight of whales and our joint responsibility to protect them. Moore has been instrumental in shedding light on these issues and in bringing the whale mural to Marion.
“There are approximately 340 North American Right Whales remaining … North Atlantic Right Whales slowly recovered from about 250 in 1990 to a peak of almost 500 in 2010 before crashing again,” Moore explained during a recent interview.
He said they are a “protected” species and are listed as an endangered species, but “good intentions do not always result in obligations fulfilled.” Moore explained, “The dual threats of trauma from vessel collisions and entanglement in rope have never been managed adequately since we realized how much of a problem they were in the 1990s.”
Moore went on to say, “We try to manage them by controlling mortality, but efforts in that regard have been an abject failure in recent years, both in U.S. and Canadian waters. Furthermore, the sublethal trauma they suffer from vessels and rope means that the whales that are still alive are in poor health with stunted growth and poor reproduction.”
Moore cited studies proving that the North Atlantic Right Whale is at birth now 3 feet shorter and much thinner than whales born in studies before the 1980s.
The recent sighting of North Atlantic Right Whales in the Cape Cod Canal did not surprise Moore, but he said there is always concern when whales come into close contact with boats. “We know they are around, but we don’t know why they were there – maybe just curious.” He commended the Army Corps of Engineers for shutting down the waterway so the whales could move about and leave the area unharmed.
As for the mural, Moore shared his hope of its installation in a place of learning that would inspire, “… a sense of wonder about the animals and some understanding of the threat the species is under in terms of a very real risk of extinction in the next few decades … some idea as to how this can change.”
And when asked what the average person can do to shine a light on the North Atlantic Right Whale’s future, Moore pointed to elected officials and vendors making the case that “if the voting, consuming public were to demand of their vendors and politicians that these industries were not a threat to these animals, then those industries and the whales could both survive.
“Ask their elected representatives and vendors to hold these concerns as priorities. Obviously, that is a tall order, given that we care a lot about the cost of all these needs. But we have to take the longer view and recognize that these Right Whale problems are just the tip of the iceberg of the problems humans have created for a world, of which we are a very influential partner.”
Visit marionmusuem.org for more information on hours of operation and programs for all ages.
Marion Natural History Museu
mBy Marilou Newell