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Celebrating World Oceans Day 2014 By Watching Whales and Picking Up Marine Debris

Our first 2014 intern, Venus, is in her final week of her internship with us.  Below she recounts our  all-day whale watching trip in celebration of World Ocean’s Day on June 8th.  We thank Venus for her hard work and time that she has put in during her 12 weeks with us!  

From left to right, WDC-NA’s 2014 summer interns: Venus, Emily, Sam.

For those of you who didn’t know, World Oceans Day was this past Sunday, June 8th. Since the United Nations recognized this holiday in 2008, The Ocean Project and World Ocean Network have been working hard to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of the ocean on this day.

To celebrate this occasion, staff and interns at WDC, including myself, went on a whale watch trip aboard WDC’s vessel, Easterly. I knew this would be one of my last whale watches since my research internship ends in less than a week, so I was very excited to be out on the water with the ladies of the office and see a lot of whales.  Because we were on our own boat and not a commercial one, we were able to stay out for 10 hours on this trip, collecting four times as much data as an average day on board commercial whale watch boats.

Our day started early, and it took us a while to get out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary from Plymouth Harbor. After about an hour and a half of travel time, we encountered our first whales of the day. Our intern coordinator Monica was very excited to find out that it was her favorite humpback whale, Nile, traveling with her calf. We spent some time with them and then continued traveling towards the middle of Stellwagen, where we were greeted by all three species of baleen whales of the area, along with several basking sharks and gray seals.

My favorite part of the trip happened as we headed towards the southeast corner of the sanctuary. As a program partner for Whale SENSE we waited our turn to get a better look at the whales and decided to watch a group that wasn’t crowded by other commercial and recreational boats. This time, I was the one who got very excited because I realized we were looking at the same group of humpbacks that I’d seen feeding together using three different feeding methods the day before, whales by the name Jabiru, Pleats, Glostick, and Glostick’s calf. They proved to be just as entertaining as they were the previous day, exhibiting some of the most photo-worthy behaviors. A couple of minutes into observing them, the whales started breaching, jumping out of the water and sometimes spinning so they’d land on a different side. I’d seen breaches before, but seeing multiple whales breach right next to each other was something else. I’m glad I got to see this, since it was one of the items on my bucket list for this internship. My jaw dropped to the floor as Glostick started to slap her flippers repeatedly on the water. At one point, she and her calf were flipper slapping in sync, giving us all a good laugh. The other humpbacks we observed in the area afterwards also gave us quite a good show, exhibiting feeding techniques such as kick-feeding, bubble netting, and chin breaching. In total, we saw 8 minkes, 4 finbacks, and 19 humpbacks. This is the most whales I’ve ever seen on one trip, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were all out to celebrate World Oceans Day too.

While all of this activity reminded me of how precious and wonderful the ocean is, this trip also reminded me of how delicate it is. In addition to taking pictures and collecting data on time, location, and behaviors of what we saw out in the water, we also stopped to pick up trash whenever we came across it. We were briefed on this process before the trip started, and I remember thinking to myself, “If we do do this, it’ll probably only be one or two pieces at most. It shouldn’t take too long.”

To my surprise and horror, we actually found 18 pieces of trash before we found a single whale. Many of these were towards the beginning of the trip as we were leaving the harbor, but we continued to come across miscellaneous pieces of trash as we went further into the sanctuary. Most importantly, we continued to find pieces of trash floating around when we were close to whales. It was very disheartening to hear “there’s a piece of trash” while we were watching the magnificent mammals feeding close by. This happened more than once, which is already one too many times it should’ve happened. My jaw dropped for a second time on the trip when I realized we found 43 pieces of trash that day. That might not seem like a lot in this vast ocean, but to put it in perspective, I compared that number to how many sightings we had in total. It turns out that 54% of the sightings we had that day were of pieces of trash.

Items that we found ranged from beer cans to Styrofoam take-out boxes to diving gloves. The biggest culprits, however, were plastic and balloons. As intern Sam Sanders mentioned in her blog about balloons, balloons and plastic bags do not fit with the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind”. Often times, they will deflate and fall back down to the ocean, or drift out to the ocean from shore. These materials are also not bio-degradable, so they’d most likely have stay in the ocean forever if we hadn’t stopped to fish them out. Although I was tired and fairly sunburnt towards the end of the trip, I didn’t want to leave so I could keep watching whales. But mostly, I wanted to keep finding and collecting pieces of trash to keep our oceans safe and clean.

So while World Oceans Day has passed for this year, it’s never too late to start appreciating our oceans and its inhabitants by holding on to your trash until you see a trash can. I hope that in my future trips out onto the ocean, more than 54% of my sightings will be of marine mammals, not trash.