Warming Waters In The Gulf Of Maine Threaten Whale Populations Waters off the coast of Maine are warming faster than 99 percent of the world's oceans. That's forcing whales northward in pursuit of prey, threatening some of their already dwindling populations.

The Gulf Of Maine Is Warming, And Its Whales Are Disappearing

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A new U.N. report says the Earth's oceans are heating up quickly, causing, in some cases, ocean heat waves for the first time. One place where that's happening - the Gulf of Maine. So that's where we begin our story.

It's a glorious September morning in Bar Harbor, Maine. The sky is a cloudless blue. In fact, it is a perfect day for one of this place's signature draws - whale watching. I'm standing underneath a pagoda with a huge wooden carved humpback whale on it where people are lined up to get onto boats heading out into the Gulf of Maine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You guys are here for the whale watch, right?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah. You guys excited?



GARCIA-NAVARRO: The very first people in line are Kurt Demann from North Carolina and his adult daughter Caryn Loften, who lives in Louisiana.

KURT DEMANN: Last year, I was in Depoe Bay, Ore., and this whale breached right in front of us. And I never got a chance to thank that whale for doing that, so I'm now up here looking for him so I can...


DEMANN: ...I can thank him for doing that. That was pretty nice.

CARYN LOFTEN: I just wanted to be able to see - it's something I've never seen before, and hopefully we'll see one today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But they may just be out of luck. The odds of seeing whales in the Gulf of Maine have dropped significantly as its waters have warmed. This story is part of a series about how East Coast communities have been adapting to climate change. And in Maine, the people that live on - and the animals that live in - the Gulf are in the midst of that adaptation, grappling with accelerating shifts in their environment.

About 90 minutes up the coast, Jim Parker runs a small whale watch boat, the Susan Jane, named after his wife.

JIM PARKER: Thirty-three-foot, typical Downeast lobster boat. There's a V back to about where the wheel is...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Parker has been on these waters since he was a child. He's now in his 70s, and he's got a white beard and the gait of a man who spends a lot of time on a rocking boat. Finding whales used to be easy in the summer. They would cluster at certain spots, providing a reliable display for enchanted tourists. He shows us his logbooks from the last 15 years.

PARKER: OK. See. Going out the 29, I went out for whales. I had two humpbacks. Like on August 8, hit thick fog - we found one minke that day in the thick fog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this year's been very different. The whales aren't showing.

PARKER: That one right there, I had no whales.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Parker says his business is down 20% this year, and he's shifted to doing nature tours to make ends meet, looking for wildlife like puffins instead of whales.

PARKER: What I don't want to do is put a half a dozen people on the boat, have them all excited about going out and see whales when I know there's not one there. I want them to have a good time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's been talking with his partner about shifting his business away from whale watching, but he's not necessarily on board with the U.N.'s warning about a warming climate.

PARKER: If you look back in history, you can't find a 10-year period in history we didn't have climate change of some form.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you don't believe when scientists say this is warming and the climate is changing, and this might be a permanent thing that happens?

PARKER: I agree a hundred percent the climate is changing, OK? I'm not convinced that it's warming.

ANDREW PERSHING: Really, since about 2010, 2012, the warming signal in our region has just exploded, and that's become a big part of our research.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Pershing is the chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. He would tell Jim Parker that climate change is melting glaciers in Greenland and sending ice and freshwater out of the Arctic, altering currents flowing into the Gulf of Maine. The result is a disruption of food sources for some species, especially whales.

PERSHING: Humpbacks are one of the ones you're most likely to see if you go out whale watching. They're, you know, very showy. They're coming here to feed. They're coming here to eat things like herring, like sand lance, these sort of small, silvery fish that are right at the middle of the food chain. We also have right whales, which are an endangered species, and they're coming to feed even lower on the food chain.

So as we're - see this food web start to become disrupted and start to change, we're seeing changes in where the whales are feeding, and we're seeing changes in when they're coming to feed.

TOBY STEPHENSON: So we're located here at Mount Desert Island. We're going to be going first south 20, 25 miles. There was a whale sighted yesterday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Toby Stephenson is the skipper of the Osprey, a research vessel for the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. He's taking us out with Sean Todd, a foraging ecologist studying the diet of the whales in the Gulf. And we have to travel farther to find them now. For people looking for whales - either tourists on the Susan Jane or us on the Osprey - Sean Todd says that's an inconvenience, but...

SEAN TODD: From a whale's perspective, it matters greatly, right? These animals have designed over evolutionary time to have a certain energy budget to get to certain places and do what they need to do. So if you increase the energy expenditure a whale has to undergo to get to its food, then the animal does not meet its calorific needs. And if it's a female, that can very likely result in a failure of pregnancy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Animals can adapt to climactic changes, says Todd. But humans are changing the environment so quickly, the whales simply can't catch up.

TODD: We're going to see lower reproductive rates across the species. And, you know, that'll bring the population back down to endangered status, perhaps.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The day's goal on the Osprey is to dart a whale using a crossbow and extract a tiny bit of skin and blubber that can tell Todd what the whale's eating. It's year two of a five-year study which will then be compared to research from 15 years ago. But the hours roll on without a sighting.


STEPHENSON: You didn't see much?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I haven't seen anything, no.


STEPHENSON: Yeah. There was something sighted not too far from here yesterday, but not super promising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sean Todd compares these waters now to a desert.

TODD: There aren't even seabirds, and we often use seabird activity as a proxy for how productive the water is, how much plankton there is around. So now we're going to move on to our next ground...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, in the old days, there might have been a thousand whales in these waters. Now there's about one-tenth of that.

TODD: That's really difficult for me to be out here now and see, you know, a flat ocean with almost no biological activity readily observable but know maybe five, 10 years ago, I could be out here, and we would have our pick of animals to work with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The story we're doing is about adaptation, and it strikes me that we're in the midst of something happening here right now where the animals are adapting and the humans are adapting to something that is underway. Is that how it feels to you?

TODD: Absolutely. I guess when you're in the middle of that, you're not quite sure what's going on. So things have been steadily changing, you know? And every year, you readjust your expectations. And so one year, you might go, well, this year wasn't great, but thank goodness it was better than last year. But then you - when you think about it on a longer scale of decades, this area has changed tremendously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute says what's happening in these waters is just the beginning, and that could be a good thing.

PERSHING: We have had challenges that other ecosystems - places like Norway, Alaska, you know, the Caribbean - that are going to deal with in the future. And it gives us the imperative to figure out, how do we deal with this rapidly changing ocean? But then we have the potential to say, look; we've learned this here, and here's some ways that other regions might be able to get ahead of the curve in a way that we maybe didn't have that opportunity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back on the Osprey, Sean Todd says it's imperative that the people who live and work on these waters also need to adapt politically and act on the very real changes they're experiencing right now.

TODD: It's only in the United States where climate change has become a politically based argument. You know, if you're on the left, you believe one thing. If you're on the right, you believe another thing, which is just, to me, so extraordinary because outside the United States, the question has been solved. It's not a question anymore. We have done this, and it's got to be rectified. And will we save the Gulf of Maine? I don't know. I don't know if we can or not, but I hope we can save the planet.


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