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There be whales here!

New signs on waterfront, reminder of endangered species nearby
By Ethan Andrews | Nov 06, 2015
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Mark Dittrick of Belfast, conservation chairman of the Atlantic Canada Chapter of Sierra Club Canada, installs an informational sign about Right Whales at Thompson's Wharf in Belfast. The endangered cetaceans breed, feed and sometimes get run over by boats in the Gulf of Maine.

Belfast — "They move slowly and they're on the surface a lot. And the number one reason for [their] unnatural death is ships."

Those were a few of the words Mark Dittrick used to describe the North Atlantic right whale. "Endangered" was another.

Dittrick, conservation chairman of the Atlantic Canada Chapter of Sierra Club Canada, installed the first of two signs on the Belfast waterfront Oct. 30 meant to alert boaters to the presence of the whales.

"Maybe not right handy to the shore," he said. "But when you go out farther, you might encounter right whales."

While it might seem like a stretch to put informational signs miles from the action, the Belfast resident pointed out that many of the boats that come through Belfast make longer voyages beyond the islands visible from Belfast Harbor and into the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine.

When they get there, the information might be useful.

Right whales used to be plentiful in coastal waters on both sides of the North Atlantic. They supported a once-massive whaling industry in the United States. And though it's been more than a century since the demand for whale oil was replaced by demand for petroleum and demand for baleen-ribbed corsets and hoop skirts was replaced by demand for neither, the whales have been slow to rebound.

Prehistoric mammals don't pivot in a mere hundred years. So the North Atlantic right whale went from direct target of one marine industry to collateral damage of another. Put differently, they weren't getting harpooned anymore; they were getting run over by cargo ships and super yachts.

Today there are fewer than 500 right whales worldwide, and they live in the waters between Maine and Nova Scotia. The right whales breed and feed here, and travel down the Atlantic coast to give birth to calves in warmer waters, though not all at once. Dittrick said there are right whales in the Gulf of Maine year-round.

The sign Dittrick installed was supplied by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and supported by a number of other organizations.

A second sign is planned for the public landing at the foot of Main Street. The point, Dittrick said, is mostly to educate boaters about the species he affectionately calls "our whale."

"We've got the most critically endangered large whale in the world," he said. "Its home is the Gulf of Maine, and that's important to know."

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