Day 5: Beluga whales, penguins and Mystic
Beluga whales – completely irresistible jelly rolls of blubber and a repertoire of sounds. Maybe it’s all the human attributes I projected on to Juno, a nine year old beluga whale, or maybe it’s the compelling story of how closely the fate of beluga whales is tied to Arctic sea ice, whatever the reason, these animals move me. Dolphins, killer whales and other extraordinarily cosmopolitan species can easily out-compete beluga whales in most of the worlds’ ocean. As Arctic sea ice retreats — which it has done steadily for the past decade -– beluga whales lose their competitive edge. Along with the narwhale and bowhead whale, the beluga lives almost exclusively within the Arctic circle, uniquely adapted for life around and under ice. Not everyone will see a beluga whale, in human care or in the wild, in their lifetime. I’ve never seen a narwhale or a bowhead whale, but hope to one day. I believe our world, and we, will be diminished if we lose polar species. I don’t need to see them to know this. Humans fight and die over issues of faith, and inherently and passionately believe in things they’ve never seen. What if the same passion were applied to the stewardship of wildlife and wild places?
Mystic Aquarium provided the setting for a seminar on climate impacts to marine mammals and penguins, as well as our beluga encounter. Maryellen Mataluksa shared her stories of stranded seals and endangered penguins. Of particular interest was the occurrence of 100 adult harp seals on New England shores this past year. Historically the Aquarium’s rescue center responds to juvenile harp seals and very occasionally an adult. The unprecedented appearance of adults speaks to some change farther north as yet unidentified. Maryellen also gave an overview of the Aquarium’s work with African penguins. These penguins, found only in South Africa, may be extinct in the wild within 20 years. Ocean currents off the coast of South Africa have shifted in the past decade, causing African penguins to swim farther to find their traditional food. Cape fur seals eat the same fish as the penguins and not only compete for limited resources but also kill penguins to get at the fish in their stomachs. Mystic Aquarium’s work on African penguins documents several decades of change to wild populations and indicates a bleak future due to climate change, overfishing and pollution, and their combined effects on these birds.
Back at the hotel in the evening, with a number of options available, the group chose to collectively work on journals. Their efforts, creatively channeling an interest in marine mammals, commitment to behavior change, and knowledge into illustrated stories of their experiences left me feeling fortunate and hopeful.