The New England Aquarium Makes Waves
By Jessica Laniewski
Dawn comes earlier than normal for the New England Aquarium’s team studying North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Maine. The group of 10 researchers (eight women and two men) board the Nereid (named after an ancient Greek sea nymph) at sunrise to watch the water and hope the surface is broken by a right whale. Two team members stand watch at the bow for the endangered whales, including mother-calf pairs. The researchers rotate positions (standing watch, data entry, steering) every hour throughout the day. Come September, the aquarium’s team, led by senior scientist Moira “Moe” Brown, heads to the Bay of Fundy, where the marine mammals feed on high densities of plankton.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world. Greatly affected by the distribution of their prey, only about 350 North Atlantic right whales were left in the world in 2000 due to the last few centuries of whaling. Thanks to the work of the aquarium, their collaborators, and increased reproduction by right whales, that number has jumped to 450 whales. During their two-month stay, the research team will typically see between 50 and 200 of them in the Bay of Fundy. Though findings are not yet conclusive, there seem to be ties between overall ocean health and the whales, and the team is hard at work on finding out more.
This research happens as the aquarium breaks ground on a new $15 million renovation of their Giant Ocean Tank. The renovation is part of a five-year, $42 million Mission Blue Campaign, which began in 2007 to improve the aquarium’s exhibits, educational programs, and its research and holding areas. The renovated tank will be expanded to hold 200,000 gallons of salt water, a Caribbean coral reef, and approximately 850 animals of 200 different species, including large sharks and giant sea turtles. The aquarium will remain open during the construction, and the tank is expected to reopen to visitors late next June.
An innovative new first-level exhibit area, the Blue Planet Action Center, will detail how the aquarium is i nvolved w ith c ommunity a nd global projects. For instance, 10 aquarium staffers work solely in the sustainable seafood department, while other researchers study such topics as Brazil’s coral reefs.
One of these international projects began nearly 11 years ago when the Bay of Fundy research team discovered something startling while collecting right whale fecal samples in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. The samples reveal a great deal about the whales, including age, gender, and the animal’s stress levels. In the days after September 11, 2001, shipping into the Bay of Fundy was halted, and samples collected from the whales showed a dramatic decrease in their stress level. In response to these accidental findings, the Canadian government implemented new shipping lanes in 2003 that resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the risk of a vessel colliding with a whale.
Other research concerns the aquarium’s work in the Pacific, including a team that helped create the world’s largest protected area, a space the size of Washington State, in the Phoenix Islands. With the leadership of the aquarium, a team of researchers and experts, including long-time diver and Board of Overseers member Alan Dynner, helped established the islands as a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The aquarium is unique in what it does,” says Dynner. “It’s the only US institution of its kind that has an active conservation program around the world. Most aquariums concentrate on the sea around them, but the New England Aquarium has made it its mission to work worldwide.” The Phoenix Islands are known for some of the world’s most beautiful and isolated coral reefs. The aquarium helped create the park by providing biological, legal, and financial expertise to the government of Kiribati (the place where Amelia Earhart most likely crashed her tiny airplane and died). There were two expeditions from New England to the islands this summer, one looking for more evidence of the pilot’s disappearance and another from the aquarium for biological research. With these latest fundraising efforts, more people will get a glimpse beyond the aquarium’s tank and into their role as cutting edge researchers.
photography by Richard Carey/Getty images