When you go for a whale watching trip with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center around the island of Cape May, you get much more than you bargained for. An exhilarating close up look at dolphins and whales is always #1 on the agenda when taking a trip, but also along the way, guests aboard are treated to a sample of Cape May’s rich history. And as the oldest seaside resort in the United States, historical details and pirate tales alike never disappoint; the relics of Cape May’s past are apparent even from sea. The Whale Watch’s unique combination experience of marine mammal ecology and Cape May’s past, pieces together the components of a seldom told story, and a dark one, of the town’s connection to commercial whaling and what it meant for our beloved whales today.
The Whaling Era
The authenticity of Cape May’s antiquity is apparent to even the casual visitor. Victorian homes in bright colors line the streets for miles, relics of war still hold their ground, and endless old photos display snapshots of Cape May’s past as both a popular seaside resort and a hub for fishing enterprise in the mid 1800’s. It may come to no surprise then, that Cape May also was involved in the commercial whaling industry that took the East Coast by storm around the time of the civil war. The “golden age” of whaling just so happened to coincide with the era in which Cape May’s beaches began to bloom. Whaling in Cape May took the form of a fleet of vessels founded in 1883 called “The Porpoise Fishing Company”. The Porpoise Fishing Company specialized in capturing dolphins in large bags, sometimes collecting 70 or more Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins in a single voyage. Although dolphin hunting was the main enterprise of the fleet, large baleen whales were also hunted using harpoons. This company and others along the South Jersey coast were just a small part of a larger whaling economy. A whale, once hunted down, was worth quite a pretty penny in America’s Victorian Era. For example, when the New Bedford whaler, Benjamin Tucker, returned to home port in 1851, she carried 73,707 gallons of whale-oil, 5,348 gallons of spermaceti (a special sperm whale oil), and 30, 012 pounds of baleen; altogether yielding a net profit after expenses of $45,320 from a single voyage. By comparison, the typical laborer during this time made an average of $2.63/week. Had this industry continued with the gusto that it did during the early to mid 1800’s, it’s likely that many whale species like the docile North Atlantic Right Whales and Bowhead Whales would have been hunted all the way to extinction.
So why were whales hunted so vigorously? Petroleum had not yet been discovered during the whaling boom, and oil already had many purposes in everyday life. Since the blubber from a large baleen whale could yield up to 100 barrels of oil, these leviathans were sought after by steam boat in risky expeditions that could sometimes take months. The payoff for these expeditions was so great that some types of whale oil were nicknamed “Neptune’s Treasure”, called so because it was worth its weight in gold. With so many uses, whale oil was always in high demand in the early 19th century. Whale oil was used from everything from lanterns to light homes during the night to use as an ingredient in early soaps and margarine. The Cape May lighthouse, now powered by standard electricity, once shined for nearby boats via a whale oil lantern. When petroleum was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, PA by the Seneca Oil Company whale oil demand decreased since petroleum proved both cheaper and easier to access. Whaling however, continued to be very prevalent into the 20th century because of continued demand for whale bone and baleen for corsets, trinkets, and hairbrushes. Whaling around the world didn’t come to an official end until 1982 when the IWC (International Whaling Commission) voted to establish a moratorium on commercial whaling once and for all for fear that continued whaling could lead to many species eventual extinction.
Effect on Whale Populations
Pre-exploitation data is not available for baleen whales in North and South America, however population trajectories using historical data can be used for general estimates. It is estimated for instance, that North Atlantic Right Whales numbered in the tens of thousands before whaling began. It was claimed that there used to be so many Right whales in Cape Cod Bay that locals could walk across their backs from one side of the bay to the other. North Atlantic right whales today are unfortunately critically endangered at a mere 450 individuals. Fortunately, under rigorous protections and observation, the North Atlantic Right Whale population is slowly but surely improving. The story is similar for many other whale species, although the decline of Right Whales is one of the more extensive cases, other whale species populations are reminiscent of this trajectory as well.
Thankfully a number a whale species have made successful comebacks by a considerable margin. Humpback Whales in the western North Atlantic are now thought to be nearing pre-exploitation population levels of close to 12,000 individuals. Minke Whales are also in a healthy state in our region, totaling 180,000 animals in the North Atlantic.
Hope for the Future
Baleen whale and dolphin populations alike are in much better shape today and continue to improve each year thanks to federal laws and protections. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (enacted 1972) and The Endangered Species Act (1973) were both essential in allowing cetacean populations to recover. The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects all marine mammals including cetaceans (porpoises, whales, dolphins), pinnipeds (seals, sea lions), and sirenians (manatees etc.) from being harmed by people in any way. The MMPA made it officially illegal to harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal or marine mammal parts with exceptions made only with special authorization for scientific reasons. This act also gave rise to the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program when it was amended in 1992. The MMHSRP plays a huge role today in the biomonitoring of marine mammal populations, keeping track of population trends and the rescue and rehabilitation of thousands of stranded or in distress animals each year. The Endangered Species Act, a second legislative product of the 70’s, was designed to protect critically endangered species from extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation”. The Endangered Species Act was particularly significant for North Atlantic Right Whales which are slowly but surely recovering from the severe impact of whaling on their population.
Even with the federal and international protections various whale species have today, it is paramount to their survival that these protections are maintained for decades if not centuries to come. Whales are long lived (70-150 years!) and slow breeders, making them very vulnerable to population collapses. It takes 10-15 years for female Fin Whales for example, to reach sexual maturity. Most reproductive age baleen whales will produce a calf every 3 years; calves may suckle then up to an estimated 15 years. Scientists believe that it takes approximately 20 years on average for a female baleen whale to replace herself with one mature female offspring. This estimate does not account for adverse human influences and threats such as bycatch, climate change, marine pollution, ship strikes and underwater noise pollution from marine vessels and military sonar; all of which are very real threats to our marine neighbors today. Whale population recovery is a slow process; therefore long term management of threats to baleen whales is the only solution to ensure their recovery.
Even though commercial whaling is, in most places, a faint memory from the past, whales still have significant human threats to their survival. Today the largest threats to baleen whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment. Research has helped us better understand whale behavior and migration patterns however, and with that knowledge shipping lanes may soon be shifted to avoid migrations making accidental strikes less likely. Regulation of risky fishing practices such as long lining will also help to reduce anthropogenic harm to our oceans. Moving forward, with good stewardship toward or marine neighbors, and a conscious effort to protect whales from further harm, these oceanic giants may thrive to awe future generations as they have ours. As world renowned marine biologist Silvia Earle once said, “Our past, our present and whatever remains of our future absolutely depend on what we do now.”
To learn more, explore the following resources for further info:
The Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program:
The uncertainty of whale population estimates:
North Atlantic Right Whales:
The Status of Whales (International Whaling Commission):
– Danielle Kroesche, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center