Part II: Q&A with Dr. Michael Moore, Author of We Are All Whalers

By Damon Gannon, Sailors for the Sea Skipper

In Part I of my conversation with Michael Moore, we discussed his new book, We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility and some of the challenges facing North Atlantic right whales. In Part II, we take a look at how he’s used sailboats in his research and what sailors can do to help whales.

Damon Gannon:  You've used sailboats quite a bit in your field research. What are the different ways or different research projects that you've used them for? What are the advantages of a sailboat in some circumstances as opposed to a power boat?

Michael Moore:  Well, the first time I used a sailboat for science was working with Dr. Hal Whitehead, an accomplished whale biologist, in Newfoundland. It was a 28-foot yawl with no bilge and plenty of bilge water. Essentially, not having to run a noisy engine allows a little bit more coexistence without acoustic trauma to these animals and certainly the humpback whales that we were working with seemed to be two things: completely unfazed by us and completely able to avoid us. It felt like they had a very strong sense of where we were. Then we went down to the other end of the migratory path for humpback whales, to Silver Bank, which is about 100 miles north of the Dominican Republic, and at the time, not well-charted at all. And we had a 33-foot Holman and Pye designed sloop – a Gladiateur built by Henri Wauquiez, that we borrowed from Hal's dad and sailed across the North Atlantic and spent quite a bit of time just fixing up before we left on that trip. And there again, mostly acoustic work down there, with hydrophones, because these animals are communicating by song. We were trying to figure out the mating system. Again, it was quiet, and you could slide around among the whales without causing much disturbance.

And then it really wasn’t until much later, studying right whales that I went back to using a sailboat. Of course, there were a number of powerboats over the years. Now I have a 55-foot cutter, which we got in '98, but we really didn't use it for science until around 2015, when we started to do drone work, when drones had become affordable and a little bit more functional. And we use that boat, mostly under power, but sometimes sailing, too.

Dr. Michael Moore with Rosita, his 55-foot cutter.

DG:  What can sailors, in particular, do to help North Atlantic right whales or any whales?

MM:  Well, at sea, you can carry a half-decent camera with a longish lens on it, and if you come across any whales, take photographs of them. [Ed. note: Under federal law, boats may not approach within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale]  If the photographs are adequate to identify individual whales then submit them to the relevant catalog holders, such as the New England Aquarium if you've got some right whale photographs, and become part of the citizen science. That has become formalized, really, with a couple of different organizations, one called the Happy Whale and the other one is  Flukebook. If you take a photograph of, say, a humpback tail in Svalbard or Newfoundland, or the Azores and send it in to Happy Whale, they'll let you know whether it was seen someplace else before. And by doing that, you're getting pins on the chart on a temporal basis as to where these animals are going. So that's some citizen science you can do.

Entanglements in fishing gear are one of the leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales.

From the consumer point of view, every sailor comes ashore eventually and buys stuff in the supermarket. Modern consumers [indirectly] kill a lot of whales. As consumers, the stuff that we care about is two-fold, in terms of whale conservation. One is directly: those products that enable rope in the water column—rope that runs from surface buoys to traps on the bottom, and between traps for lobster, crab, snow crab. Sooner or later, we're going to have to find a way to track and certify the sourcing of that material, of that seafood. Consumers should be able to determine whether it was caught in a whale-friendly manner, by using methods to retrieve the traps without having persistent rope in the water column. So that's something we need to push towards, and it's hard to do that. But nonetheless, it must happen.

The second is more of a generic consumerism, whereby 90-plus percent of the goods that we buy retail come from overseas on a ship, and each of those ships has a risk associated with them of causing lethal or sublethal trauma to whales through vessel collision. So, we as a society, if we care, and if we care is the key point here, need to push towards having appropriate vessel collision avoidance strategies, such as moving the whales and the ships apart. The whales aren't going to move on their own, so we need to be putting the shipping lanes where the whales are not likely to be. We also need to slow the ships down. For North Atlantic right whales, essentially, the continental shelf from Florida to Newfoundland & Labrador is all a target zone for whale collisions. Now that technique has been in use for quite a while. But in the US, it's primarily voluntary. It doesn't work because people just do what they do. So it has to be enforced and it has to be mandatory, and it has to be part of the business plan of every shipper. The areas need to be big enough and the season long enough to actually have some value. Right now the areas are too small, in time and space. You know in 2020, we killed two right whale calves in U.S. waters with vessel collisions. One in the Southeast and one in the Mid-Atlantic. It could happen in the northeast next year. We can't have the luxury of being that focused on just a certain area at a particular time of year.

We need to push for whale-friendly commerce at sea, and regulations need to include pleasure vessels. Say you've got a 65-foot, twin-screw power boat that's doing 15 or 20 knots off the coast of north Florida. You shouldn’t be doing that—especially off the southeast in the winter—because you're not going to see the whale but the whale will certainly feel you. And so just take it onto yourself to figure out where your behavior is appropriate and where it isn't. And that's not easy. But that's the reality.

Use your voice to help North Atlantic right whales. Tell your federal government officials to take immediate action to protect North Atlantic right whales, before they are gone forever.