SAFE HARBOR FOR ORPHANS OF THE SEA
Lubec, Maine — In the midst of the vast repertoire of species that frequent the terrestrial and oceanic wilds of Lubec, Maine, is one of the human sort -- a marine biologist named Dorothy Spero. Seven years ago, Dr. Spero founded the West Quoddy Biological Research Station (WQBRS) on an unruly spit of land that reaches out toward the icy indigo waters of the Bay of Fundy. When asked why she's here, she responds, ``Because I have such a tremendous love for animals,'' then laughs and adds, ``I hate to say that, being a scientist -- but there it is.''
In her tenure as director of the station, the raven-haired Spero has demonstrated keenness of heart as well as mind. She has both researched and tended the wild things that surround her. Although she came to this remote region to study the acoustical and behavioral patterns of northern right whales, she quickly accepted a sideline: rescuing a host of injured animals and nursing them back to health and self-sufficiency.
``Once people in the area knew we were here working on whales,'' Spero says, ``it wasn't long before they began calling to say, `We found this wounded animal stranded on the beach; what should we do with it?' My staff and I ended up taking the animals in and caring for them.''
So many calls came to the station that Dorothy applied for the permits needed to open an animal care center. Since then, she and her crew have revived and then released countless woebegone creatures as small as shorebirds and as large as whales.
Bunky, a week-old harbor seal, came to the research station with a gunshot wound in his neck. Quoddy Head is little more than a stone's throw from Canada, where seals are not protected by law as they have been in Maine since 1971. In fact, there is a bounty on seals there -- ``$15 a nose,'' according to Spero, who speculates that Bunky's mother was killed. At the research station's care center, Bunky lived in an outdoor pool with an ocean view. Staff members Holly Garner and Melissa Lee fed him a formula of cow's milk, cream, and herring, rich enough to rival the milk he would have suckled from his mother. Then, for three months they dropped two pounds of live herring into the pool three times a day. Their aim was to build up the pup's fat and encourage him to feed for himself, so he could survive when released back into the wild.
``As soon as possible, we try to dehumanize the animals in our care,'' Spero says. ``That's essential if we're going to reintroduce them to the natural environment.''
Apparently, severing the ties is especially tough with seals, who can break your heart by wailing when they are bored, hungry for attention -- or suffering the results of their own shenanigans: ``Sometimes we hear them crying and when we go out to the pool we find they've pulled the plugs, let out all the water, and left themselves stranded on the bottom,'' Spero chuckles.
Despite humorous or serious snags, and despite the ongoing struggle of financing the nonprofit care facility, many seals have been successfully rehabilitated at the station. When Bunky's weight climbed from 21 to 55 pounds, his tenders carried him back to the ocean where his life began, and where there were plenty of other seals to keep him company.
In 1974, before Spero founded the station, some 100 dolphins entered the shallow waters of a cove near Edmunds park. Grounded and confused, they were unable to return to open water. All of them died. In 1981, Spero received a call that 50 white-sided dolphins were grounded at low tide in Dennys Bay.
``All of my staff plus people from town hurried to where they were stranded,'' she recalls. Once there, staff members bounded into the shallows and showed the town volunteers how to untangle the shocked dolphins from the algae, hold them upright, and keep their bodies wet. Throughout the night, Spero says, the disoriented animals ``had to be held so they wouldn't roll over and drown.'' Rescuers stayed with the dolphins until the tide came in over their heads. ``Once the animals were totally aware and able to swim, we used two boats to corral them back in the bay.'' This time, almost all the smooth-skinned creatures survived.
There are scores of such harrowing and heroic survival stories stemming from the research station. After the 1981 mass grounding of dolphins, Spero set up a standing network in the Lubec region and distributed flyers that notified the public what to do if they discovered a stranded marine mammal. Not long ago, a minke whale got itself trapped in the fish weir of a Canadian fisherman. While the whale feasted on the fellow's mackerel catch and wreaked havoc on his costly weir, the man hastily called the station, whose workers again came to the rescue.
Spero found this episode particularly satisfying, since it provided some proof that her vigorous efforts to urge wildlife conservation among United States and Canadian communities near Quoddy Head were paying off. ``That fisherman could have solved his problem by shooting the whale, which isn't protected in Canada,'' she says. ``Instead, he called us for help.''
Public education is a major goal for the people working at the station. Debbie Olson runs a visitor's center, open to the public from June through September. Here hang rare pictures of a finback whale birthing. (Spero and her assistants documented the arrival of this 21-foot calf.) Here you can look at other whale pictures that show you the difference between breaching, spy-hopping, and tail-lobbing. You can buy wildlife stationery, posters of Bunky, T-shirts emblazoned with the WQBRS whale logo. Or you can tap the station's naturalist for a walking tour of one of the most unique ecosystems on the East Coast of the US.
It was the uniqueness of this area that first drew Spero. ``I came here from Princeton University for a month in summer 1979 looking for an area to do my whale research,'' she says. She camped under the stars at night and spent her days perched on a rock at the water's edge. Monitoring the deep blue of Quoddy Head's various coves, Spero sighted four species of whales -- the right, finback, humpback, and minke -- all within 50 feet of the shoreline. ``It was the most spectacular sight I've ever seen.''
But this scientist soon realized the region had more to offer than whales. ``The whales sort of opened the doors to all that was going on here. As I looked in the area, I became dumbfounded by what I saw: meadows, bog habitats, a [400-acre state] park so dense with vegetation that it looks as if it's a rain forest, an enormous mud flat that draws hundreds of thousands of birds, the world's second largest whirlpool, that creates upwellings of nutrients,'' and enough marine and terrestrial life to keep scores of researchers busy. ``I was definitely enticed.''
Shortly after this visit, Spero garnered funding and made arrangements to lease and later buy the abandoned US Coast Guard station on Quoddy Head's northern shore. She now splits her time between work as director of electron microscopy research at Princeton University and her research/management tasks at the station.
In addition to Spero and her staff, the station hosts a rotating family of biologists, geologists, and students every year. They live and work in a cluster of worn white buildings that creak in the crosswinds on an open knoll 100 yards from the sea. What this spartan complex lacks in creature comforts, it makes up for in locale -- for this region is the last stretch of truly undeveloped territory on the eastern US coast.
``To have a facility in an untouched area like this is phenomenal for scientists,'' says Spero, who is as anxious about the well-being of this habitat as she is about the creatures who live in it. ``I guess it has become an obsession for me [that] the data that we're all bringing in will aid in preserving this region and the species that inhabit it.''
In gathering her own data on the ways and wiles of the rare northern right whale, Spero has clocked more sea hours than a fisherman. In the summers, she and her assistants often spend some 14 hours a day in the station's 15-foot Boston whaler or at their spotting sites -- no matter how mean the weather.
The comprehensive acoustical and behavioral data they have gathered reveal that right whales utter a wide variety of low- and high-frequency sounds that appear to be a kind of ``whale talk.'' The researchers tracked some of these sounds from as far away as 20 miles. Says Spero: ``Not only do these whales utilize a large vocal repertoire dependent upon behavior, but they appear to have individual vocal `signatures.' ''
Spero claims she can sit in the boat with her earphones on, hear a whale call, and know which particular whale is approaching the boat.
``It's very difficult to prove,'' she says, but she hopes to develop her finding. Identifying and tracking whales through vocal signature could ultimately be more efficient and accurate than physical identification, which would greatly satisfy Spero the scientist. And it would be less intrusive upon the whales, which would satisfy Spero the animal lover.
There are times when it appears that the whales are tracking Spero and her troupe.
``I think they know my boat,'' she says. ``Plenty of times I've headed out when they're in the area, and as soon as I've established myself in that region, they come up to the boat and spy-hop'' -- pop their heads out of the water to see what's happening. Sometimes the enormous creatures offer up rambunctious greetings to this lady who has become such a regular feature in their lives.
``There's one right whale we call White Tip,'' Spero says, ``who has the tendency to pretend he's charging the boat. He comes full force toward it, dives underneath at the last second, and then sounds a loud call -- as if he knows my hydrophone is attached under the boat.''
One day, Spero might just find out what White Tip is saying. Meanwhile, a visitor lacking scientific acumen imagines he may be spewing forth thanks for the fact that Spero and her cohorts are struggling to understand marine life in order to preserve it. In truth, none of the animals rehabilitated at the station have returned to signal an attachment or to thank these people who have had their well-being so constantly in mind.
None, that is, but Bunky. He has been known to abandon the popular seal hangout several hundred feet from shore, swim boldly toward the station's boat house, and ``haul out'' onto the dock to sun himself. ``Just stopping by,'' says Spero.