On a crisp morning in September, a bird dove towards the ocean. It was a gannet, pure white with a baby blue beak tapering to a fine point, wings and tail tipped in black. Its over-large wings were tucked in close, acting as twin rudders to direct the head-first plunge. But as the gannet neared the waves, it stretched its wings and flattened them against its body, becoming a torpedo painted with a pale blue tip and black tailfins, custom-made to spear deep into the water. The silver herring below had no chance, for how could it defend against an enemy that at one moment wheels innocently in the sky, and within half a second reappears underwater to gulp down its prey?
The gannet’s densely-woven feathers insulated it from the chilly waters of the Gulf of Maine, and as it bobbed back up to the surface amidst the first rays of sunlight, it shivered, sending salty droplets into a rainbow arc above its head. Nearby, an uneven fingertip of land peeked above the waves. The island known as Mount Desert Rock was large enough to host a lonely lighthouse and a small, weather-beaten cabin, but too small and rocky to allow any greenness aside from a few scraggly bushes that huddled in the cabin’s lee. The gannet could remember long ago when the lighthouse had scattered its beams into the night and helicopters had dropped supplies on the barren flats outside the cabin, but now no light interrupted the darkness and whirring blades no longer scattered the gannet’s flock. The island had lost its purpose, too far from land to be useful. All that remained was the rude shrieking of hungry gull chicks, migrating songbirds resting among the wispy bushes, seals slipping silently into the water as the tide rose.
The gannet flapped quickly and took flight, soaring high among the flock of diving birds. It peered down into the waters below, its sharp eyes picking out the flit and turn of the school of herring hovering in the shallow waters. Further away from the rocks, a cloud of mist steamed into the brisk air, marking the presence of a right whale.
Once, these gentle giants had been the gannet’s constant summer feeding companions at Mount Desert Rock, existing as yet another branch of the food chain that governed all life in the area. Years ago, right whales had trawled through the water daily, gulping down the same invisible creatures that the gannet’s herring nibbled at. But just as change had come to the island itself, so change had come to the waters around the island, and those tiny critters no longer endured in numbers great enough to feed such a massive mammal. Right whales had been absent for years now, so the gannet paused a moment to circle this rare sight. Below, the whale basked in the dawn and trundled along with mouth agape, lazily collecting its morning meal.
ARRR! ARRRR! The gannet shrieked in alarm as the surface suddenly erupted, spraying agitated bursts of whitewater in every direction. The whale rolled and flipped, tossing its tail and lunging in and out of the waves, fins slapping the surface, head jerking side to side in a futile exercise.
Quickly losing energy, it paused for a breath, steam now thrusting into the sky in a violent spear. The waves settled.
The gannet could now see a buoy jammed against the side of the whale’s mouth, a thick rope cutting through the baleen like a bit then trailing out the other side into the deep where it undoubtedly hauled a trap laden with lobster. The whale reared its head and slapped the water again, trying desperately to dislodge the foreign intruder before it could tear out its baleen. This time, some success: the rope slackened as the whale’s weight snapped its connection to the lobster trap below.
All life had seemed to pause during the crisis, but as the whale paused, buoy bobbing on one side and rope now floating on the other, the herring resumed their flitting, and the gull chicks renewed their complaints. For now, all was safe. But as the gannet circled above the stunned whale once more, the aftermath was clear: the rope sat wedged between plates of baleen sitting askew on both sides of the whale’s mouth, and a red tinge slowly dissolved in the waves. Breakfast was impossible now; holding its mouth open gingerly, the whale flicked its tail, hoping to flee the site of the trauma but hindered by the fishing gear trailing on both sides.
As the whale staggered into the distance, the gannet silently cried out for some force of nature to come and pluck the buoy from its mouth, hoping against hope that this right whale would not be the last it ever saw.
Zoe Wong, RCC Campus Writer
Zoe Wong is a master’s student in Environmental Management at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment interested in threatened species conservation, illegal fishing, and environmental communication. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies (Phi Beta Kappa) from Amherst College, Zoe conducted research on whales and seals in Bar Harbor, Maine, then worked as a whale watch and snorkel naturalist in Hawaii. After her master’s degree, Zoe hopes to find a career in ocean policy, particularly around endangered species like the right whale. [email protected]
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