Laura Howes is the database manager and intern coordinator at the Whale Center of New England. The Whale Center, located in Gloucester, MA, is one of several whale research institutes dotting the New England coast. The Center works with privately owned whale watch companies including Boston Harbor Cruises. During the whale watch season, which runs from early April to November, Howes works part-time as a naturalist, narrating the tours. We talked to her about the whale watch experience and how it helps her research.
As a research organization, how are you affiliated with whale watch companies?
Many whale research organizations work with whale watch companies. We provide the whale watch a service – our expertise. Having a researcher serve as narrator adds a lot to the experience, and it gives us a platform to go out every day, multiple times a day, to get research done. Since it’s a whale watch, the goal is ultimately to find whales for the passengers, so for the most part you go to areas where you’re pretty sure you’ll find something.
Which types of whales do you usually see around Boston?
We typically see large baleen whale species. Humpbacks, finbacks, and a smaller baleen whale called the minke whale are the three most common species you’d expect to see. A fourth one is the North Atlantic right whale. They’re very rare and critically endangered, but we occasionally see them in the spring.
What sort of data do you collect out on the whale watches?
We’re looking for a couple different things. We’re doing photo ID research. You can identify and distinguish almost every species by their natural markings. With humpback whales, it’s the patterns on their tails and the shape of their dorsal fins. That not only tells you who that animal is and where it’s located, but you can also learn about its life history, how old it is, and which other whales it associates with. We of course collect location data about where we’re seeing these whales, which is important for conservation efforts – especially with endangered species – since it will affect management of those areas.
At the Whale Center, one of our biggest areas is behavioral research. We have what’s called an ethogram – it’s a collection of behaviors. We have a list of 80 behaviors and we try to record pretty much every single thing that the whale’s doing. With that, we’ve been able to learn about very specific whales and their types of behavior. And we’ve learned that different whales have different behavioral patterns that are almost kind of like personalities.
Could you give an example?
Sure. Kick-feeding is a type of feeding that humpback whales do. They take their tails back and kind of kick their prey. So they stun the fish, and it helps them herd the fish and then swallow it. In the early 80s, we saw a few whales start to do this behavior. And by the 90s there were more whales doing it, and actually about one-third of the whale population in this area now utilizes kick-feeding. Not only is it a very cool behavior, but it’s also a learned behavior. And it’s thanks to those very detailed behavioral notes that we learned about that.
Is there any worry about daily whale watches disturbing the whales’ habitats?
It’s definitely a fine line for whale watch companies. There’s been a lot of research looking at the effect of whale watch boats on whales. Ultimately, it’s an industry, a business. The goal is to inform people about whales, but we’re still trying to protect the species. For the most part, the captains I work with have a lot of experience and know how to properly pilot around whales. We’re trying to give the whale space, never trying to cut it off from its path, staying a safe distance away from it, and trying not to approach it too closely. But the whales we see are very used to boats, and for the most part they just ignore them. It’s kind of like an urban area for these whales. They do know you’re there, but they just seem to continue doing what they’re doing.
Click here to listen to a conversation with Laura Howes on fin whales.
This interview has been edited and condensed.