The interest for marine life in general, and for large mammals at sea in particular, has been there since marine mammologist Richard Sears’ childhood. He always knew that he wanted to work with the ocean in some way.
“I’m fascinated by what happens below the surface. I have always been that way. I came to Canada when I was young to work on a salmon research station, this was back in 1976. After I saw my first blue whale, there was no turning back. The first thing that struck me were the blow holes. How big they are!” he says with a smile.
Every year for over four decades, Richard has been out at sea researching blue whales, believed to be the largest animals on the planet that have ever lived. They can grow up to 108 feet and weigh over 400 000 pounds. To put it into context, a blue whale’s tongue weighs as much as an adult elephant.
There is very little known about blue whales since they spend so much time below the surface, so a good day at sea in this job means one thing: calm waters. That is when you have the best chance of encountering one of these marine mammals that are an endangered species. Calm waters and no waves are the ideal weather conditions in order to be able to collect data for the important whale research, a lot of which is crucial for the survival of the population considering that the blue whales have been endangered since the 1970s.
The research consists of understanding important aspects of the whales’ lives, including patterns of residency, population size and the health and condition of the whales. It is estimated that there are only 10 000 – 25 000 left in the world today with a portion of those located in Canada, where Richard does his research. He says: “The glamorous part of the work is to get out on the boat and see the animals. They are amazing to watch”.
He continues: “We check the weather the night before. Our everyday work consists of getting up in the morning and getting our gear ready, and then getting out on the water. As soon as we have pretty good light, we hope to find them. Since these animals are so mobile, you have to be mobile as well. So, you need to get out on a boat, obviously”.
The boat, a Targa 32 powered with twin D4-260 Volvo Penta aquamatic sterndrive engines, is smoothly cutting the black, ice-cold water. We are getting farther and farther away from the St Lawrence River by the Canadian east coast where we join Richard, who is one of the world’s most prominent mammologists, specializing in baleen whales, where blue whales are included. From the boat, he collects samples from the mammal with a specially designed cross bow.
The boat is almost still. Everybody is waiting for that pair of blue whales that dived deep ten minutes ago; whales sometimes travel in small groups. They should come up any minute now. Suddenly, one of the crew members hollers:
- “Two o’clock!”
The steel grey backs of the pair are visible on the starboard side and we set off in full speed. Richard and his crew only have a few minutes to get close enough to take photographs and do a biopsy before the couple dives again. At a specific point, Richard lifts his cross bow and aims at the gigantic creature not far from us in order to secure a sample. Everyone seems to hold their breath. After procuring the sample, Richard turns and says:
You never know if they will stay around, or if they will go down feeding.
After more than 40 years in research, Richard has seen quite a few of the world’s biggest whales, such as sperm whales, humpback whales and, naturally, the blue whales.
“Nevertheless, it is still breathtaking every time they approach the boat,” he says. “It is an amazing sight. It hasn’t really changed that much but now, luckily, I have more insight into their lives than I had when I was 24 years old. Nowadays, I can even recognize a specific whale when we encounter it, the way I would a friend.”