I met Michael Fishbach and Delphi Waters on a windy Tuesday afternoon in Loreto, Baja California. Every February and March, Michael and Dephi migrate south, from the east coast of the United States, to study these amazing creatures as they journey along the coast of Baja. Michael has followed the whale’s migration for 29 consecutive years, and today he is a world leading blue whale conservationist. Together with Delphi, he runs the Great Whale Conservancy and Global Whale Guardians™ program.
“We’re blue whale people. We spend a lot of time around them.”
Blue whale people are as rare as blue whales, which are one of the rarest species of whales on the planet. Loreto is one of the few places in the world where large numbers of blue whales can be seen close to the coast, as most live solitary lives out in the ocean’s depths. But Michael wasn’t always a blue whale guy, he used to be a mountain guide and a tennis pro.
“So about 32 years ago, I was leading hiking trips in Canada, and one of the places in Quebec that we went to do hiking trips was a place where there’s whales, which I didn’t know when I started. After doing that trip, I realised that whales actually swam into the Saint Lawrence River. So I met all the people that were studying whales and got involved with them. It was pretty exciting what they were doing. And in my time off, I did volunteer work with them and one of them, Richard Sears, happened to be the first person that ever studied blue whales in the world.”
With Richard, Michael began traveling to Loreto to assist in data collection and research.
“I found the awe and the mystery of the whale to be extremely compelling.”
Blue whales are the largest animal to have ever existed on Earth, larger than any dinosaur. Their hearts are the size of small cars. Thanks to their size and speed, they did not face a natural predator until humans hunted them, close to extinction.
“In the 20th century 379,000 blue whales were reported killed, now there’s approximately 10,000 left on the planet.”
Blue whale hunting ceased when in 1966, 200 countries signed the blue whale moratorium, yet blue whale populations have barely recovered in 50 years, so what’s happening?
“About 32 years ago I started doing field research on whales, collecting data… I was learning more about the problems they were facing, especially with ship strikes and entanglements.”
Since the 1966 moratorium, ocean traffic has skyrocketed: it is estimated that 4.1 million fishing vessels, 50,000 merchant ships and 400 cruise ships criss-cross the oceans every day. The size of shipping tankers and cruise ships make it difficult for captains to change course once set, causing unseen whale deaths everywhere.
“Focusing on ship strikes seemed to be the way we could really make a difference. So we started an NGO called the Great Whale Conservancy with the mission to help the plight of the world’s great whales, with a special emphasis on the blue whale.”
Around 97 percent of whale ship strikes are not detected, because most great whale species are negatively buoyant so when they are killed they immediately sink to the bottom of the ocean.
“Any data that you find regarding whale deaths due to strikes doesn’t tell even a minuscule part of the story. Most large whales that end up dead on the beach are likely the victims of ship strikes. And those numbers are a minuscule portion of the animals that are hit. And if they didn’t sink, guess what? We wouldn’t be sitting here because we would have dead whales floating all over the world’s oceans, and the ship strike problem would have been stopped long ago, nobody would have put up with it.”
More and more people are beginning to realise the scale of the problem, as large whales have recently been beaching in heavily populated areas. On the coast of New Jersey, in the last three months, 23 whale carcasses were found along the coast. Yet scientists are wary of stating the cause of death, despite necropsies revealing they’re mainly due to ship strikes. In fact recent headlines suggest the cause of death is unknown.
“So when we look at the large whales that are not recovering from the era of whaling, it’s very clear the lowest hanging fruit to help them recover is getting rid of ship strikes. And the only way you can be certain that you’re doing that is to take the ships and the whales and separate them. If you slow the ships down or you have lookouts or you use acoustical information to try to divert the ships, all of those things might help, but it’s inarguable that if you separate the ships and the whales — and they are no longer in the same place at the same time — you have fully fixed the ship strike problem.
“So that’s what we focus on. We create rerouting documents by partnering with local biologists to gather whale observational data. We also have a supertanker ship captain on our team, he really understands how these ships work: the draft of the ships, how they’re steered, how they communicate with ports, how they pick their routes and what they will do and what they won’t do. So then we take areas where we know there are ship strike problems, and gather whale data, and then with our ship captain, we create a rerouting documents that bring the ships into port in a manner that avoids critical whale habitats or feeding grounds. If you will, we separate the ships and the whales.”
During their months here in Baja California, Michael and Delphi conduct scientific surveys of the whales. After years of field work with blue whales, their unparalleled knowledge of the animals and their behaviours makes for unique encounters. It’s a profound part of the work that Delphi cherishes.
“What I love most about this work is getting to really know the individual whales. For example their specific characteristics and behaviours. They all have different body language. When we have six or even eight blue whales around, we can differentiate them from a distance, often by their body language. They just do slightly different things when they’re on the surface taking their breaths.”
This intimate knowledge is valued by the wider community of ocean conservationists: Michael and Delphi were recently joined by the Sealegacy crew to to film these incredible creatures. Yet fellow whale aficionados are not the audience Michael and Delphi covet moost, they are more focused on the CEOs of shipping companies.
“We want to save lives now. So the way we’ve found to do that is to directly approach the maritime industry and partner with them,” Delphi explained. “So far they’ve been receptive and excited to help. So instead of waiting years for some big legal battle, we can start saving whale lives now by partnering with the maritime industry.”
Whales are critically important to life on Earth. Whales feed and then they discharge nutrient-rich faeces. This mineral-rich poo supports phytoplankton growth and phytoplankton produce a third of the world’s oxygen. This creates a cycle known as the whale pump. So saving whale lives equates to saving human lives, and Michael is strong in his belief that their lives can be saved.
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“We have found that the maritime industry actually care and want to be part of the solution. They don’t want to hit these whales and kill them, so there’s great hope for alleviating this problem. We invite them here to come and see the whales.”
Delphi agrees: “We give them a connection to the whales.”
It’s clear that Michael believes that much change will come through creating this connection with the shipping industry.
“If you want to be a ship captain, you have to study for years, yet it’s not part of the curriculum to focus on whales. Therefore, many don’t know anything about the ship strike problem either. So we’re trying to change that. We’re actively working to get whales and ship strikes to be part of the curriculum so these people get their degree and they’re aware of what’s going on. So we have hope.”
Michael’s focus on solving the ship strike issue is what makes his work both unique and compelling.
“I felt like I was in a unique position to make a difference because the bottom line is, if we can stop ship strikes to a great extent around the world, we are going to stimulate a rebound in global whale populations, which is badly needed for the health of the ocean. And the ocean being healthier is badly needed for the health of the planet. I mean, we’re in deep water in a negative way. If we don’t improve the health of the oceans, our own survival will be at risk, and having more whales is an important component of having healthier oceans.”
The Great Whale Conservancy’s work is a tangible solution to alleviating whale deaths. Their model reflects a changing tide in conservation efforts: instead of demonising the maritime industry, they connect with their emotions. Michael and Delphi clearly believe in the human inclination towards compassion and collaboration. Their focus on these attributes is what they feel will save whale lives today.
I believe they will. Their dedication to their work is truly inspiring. Although I appreciate what motivates them: witnessing whales in the wild produces an inexplicable feeling of awe that is genuinely moving. So I am sure the whales, with Michael and Delphi’s help, will move shipping routes too.