By Mark Gilmore, science teacher – SHS
After repeated attempts, due to weather, the Sandwich High School biology classes made their annual whale watch field trip in early October, 2014, to Stellwagen Bank, home to a variety of endangered whale species and all kinds of other interesting marine life. The whale watch trip has been an important part of our biology curriculum, specifically the Ecology unit, for the past twenty years and is supported by a number of projects we do back in the classroom. All students get an opportunity to choose a marine species from the “food web” that is supported on our coastline, do research on their organism, and place their species into a growing food web we construct in the classroom. As students report to the class, there is an opportunity to discuss the implications of ocean pollution, current change due to climate variation, and the impacts of overfishing.
This year we headed NNW to the South West Corner of Stellwagen, familiar I am sure to many of you as a great fishing spot for Giant Bluefin Tuna. For those of you whom have not gone fishing or whale watching, Stellwagen Bank is a vast shallow submarine sand and gravel deposit north of Cape Cod, and a protected marine reserve since 1992, The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, over 800 square miles in size. It is extremely important as a location where nutrient rich deep cold water rises up the shallow edges of the bank in a process we call upwelling, bringing nutrients to the microscopic photosynthesizing phytoplankton, which in turn feed all the other organisms in our massive interconnected marine food web.
Although the seas started out at three to five feet, it was just calm enough for our adventure and we made it to the Bank within an hour where we ended up basking in the sunshine! It wasn’t too long before we found a Humpback whale, a whale we have named “Milkweed” for her intricate black and white tail pattern, resembling, you guessed it, a patch of black milkweed plants, against a field of white, if you really use your imagination. Not only was this a well known female humpback, but she was with her new calf of the year, whom by the way is not yet named as the baby has some growing to do before his/her tail pattern is stable as distinct black and white. We watched the mother and calf swim and roll around the boat for most of the trip, taking hundreds of pictures while having wonderful close looks at both, before finally having to leave that incredible place for home.
I was again reminded how incredibly fortunate we all are to have this Sanctuary and these whales in our own back yard to share with our students and friends, and how fortunate I am personally, to have come to Cape Cod myself in 1982 to study whales and to continue to work as a naturalist on board whale watch boats. I am often asked; don’t you get tired of looking at whales? I can only smile, knowing that some of our kids were very moved by what they had experienced, and hoping that we can continue to bring our kids offshore to visit whales on Stellwagen Bank. As always our teachers and administrators have continued to be great participants and supporters of this trip and we are looking forward to a fantastic trip in 2015, see you there !