Alexandra Marshall

Invisible Spring

Originally published in The Boston Globe, March 30, 2009

The official start of spring in the northeast always seems to mean we're not there yet. We get previews of coming attractions with Big Papi's spring training homers hit into the palm trees of Fort Myers, but these can seem like rumors when it's too soon here to hose down the bleachers. We see pictures of the floppy pink and white magnolias in full bloom, mid-coast, while ours are still in their gray fuzzy buds, timed for the Marathon. The muted hint of color in our drab landscape can be faulted for its subtlety when we're this sick of waiting.

But wait. A recent Provincetown Banner reports "Early spring brings scores of endangered mammals to Cape shores," and whether we'd be willing to call this particular spring "early" or not, there's plenty of action in Cape Cod Bay. "Right whales return in droves," is the headline describing their reappearance from winter birthing grounds in the waters off North Florida and Georgia. And because the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies tracks the numbers by boat and plane, we're reliably informed that 60 to 80 right whales are massed in these waters at this time of year, a significant percentage of the total North Atlantic right whale population of less than 400.

Not unlike summer tourists, the right whales arrive in spring to feast on the local specialties, which in their case means consuming three species of animal plankton that, though virtually impossible to see, are assumed to be their primary diet. Dr. Charles "Stormy" Mayo is the Center's director of right whale research, and in a phone conversation he describes this microscopic food source as "the unseen engine of the North Atlantic."

"There's a hint of spring in the sea," Dr. Mayo says, "when the ocean is tinted green by phytoplankton," the plant counterpart of the zooplankton the right whales feed on. The elevated sunlight causes these plants to explode—think millions of cells in a quart of water—to reach the "spring maximum" when the cycles of phytoplankton and zooplankton are timed to meet. "The right whales have a way of knowing all this," he says admiringly, with the implication that it's the job of scientists like him to learn by observing these marine mammals that he characterizes as "cows grazing on fields of plankton."

This pastoral comparison is not meant to obscure the serious problem that, though right whales are protected by strict federal regulations, their endangerment due to ship strikes or fishing gear entanglement keeps them at risk. Big and slow—and when dead they float—Dr. Mayo confirms that they got their name by being the "right" whales to kill for their abundant oil and whalebone. When I ask him what he thinks about this, he replies that his own ancestors were whalers working from those same beaches, including his father who hunted pilot whales in the 1920's.

"What do I think about this? We learn," he answers. But he calls it "the arrogance of the intellectual present" when we judge the past for its incorrect assumptions, so he is cautious about "what we don't know now about ethics and science." At the same time, the Center's statement of purpose asserts, "At the heart of our mission is conservation biology, what sociobiologist E.O. Wilson calls ‘a discipline with a deadline,' for what we do not save today may be gone tomorrow."

At the moment, though, there's reassurance in how much more there is than meets the eye. The commercial whale watch fleets will begin their season in a couple of weeks, and even from the federally restricted distance of 500-yards it may not be too late by then to see these right whales before they move on to spend the summer in northern waters. The irony at the moment is that from the Provincetown beach they're sometimes only 100-feet offshore, with many amateur sightings of mother-calf pairs and, one recent evening at sunset, of mating.

On other days of course it remains necessary to wait and watch and see nothing more than what appears to be the unremarkable sea on a chilly spring day. The difference now is in knowing it isn't.