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'Netting a whale: Scientists and student are coming aboard Internet whale-watch cruises

By Matt Villano, Globe Correspondent, 08/12/96

If only Captain Ahab could have used the Internet.

The fictional whaling captain, who spent almost two years tracking his cetacean nemesis, Moby Dick, could not help but envy the speed with which people all over the country have been able in recent months to locate a northern right whale named Metompkin all without ever moving from their personal computers.

At least they could until last month, when the batteries ran out on a satellite tracking device attached to Metompkin.

Metompkin is no ordinary whale. In January, she became the first marine mammal ever to be equipped with a satellite tracking device that could transmit data directly onto the Internet.

Once on the Web, the data was sorted and stored, and Metompkin's travels around the Atlantic were plotted on computer-generated maps. Now, anyone who logs on to the site can follow the whale's journeys for the last six months, until the went cold on July 4.

The Satellite Tagging Observation Program, scheduled to expand over the next few months to include other marine mammals, is part of Whalenet - an Internet site based at Wheelock and Simmons colleges.

Attracting more than 30,000 on-line visitors a day, the tagging project is among the most popular features of the site, which also has become an up-to-the-minute clearinghouse for whale information from scientists and commercial whale-watch companies.

But there's more to it than maps and databases. Co-coordinator J. Michael Williamson said the site is designed to turn the tracking and sighting information into compelling tools that schools can use to teach about whales and other marine life.

``Our goal was always to bring real-life experiences with whales and other animals into the classroom,'' said Williamson, a professor of oceanography at Wheelock College who teamed up with counterpart Paul Colombo of Simmons to launch the site more than two years ago.

``Along the way, Whalenet has enabled us to find out some things about these animals that we never even thought of,'' Williamson said. ``All of us are learning things first-hand, right as they happen.''

Williamson said Metompkin - named after a Coast Guard cutter - was a test case. The 35-ton whale first was spotted off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., on New Year's Day, entangled in rope from a fishing net and lobster pots from New England waters. Volunteers from Provincetown's Center for Coastal Studies went down and teamed up with the Coast Guard for the rescue effort.

They were able to pull off most of the polypropylene rope, but one section was so deeply embedded in the whale's flesh that it could not be removed. That's when Scott Kraus, associate director of research for the New England Aquarium, decided the rope was a perfect place to attach a radio tag, so researchers could track the whale.

``Usually, we inject the tags into the whales' skin, where they're at a risk of falling out at the worst and agitating the animal at the very least,'' Kraus said. ``We knew she wouldn't even feel the tag on the end of that rope.''

Kraus said the tag worked better than expected, transmitting the animal's location three or four times a week. The first radio tag's battery ran out in early February, and was replaced with a tag linked to the French ARGOS satellite. Kraus said those tags have normally have a lifespan of three months, but Metompkin's lasted almost six. Like the radio tag, the satellite tag was also attached to the end of the 150-foot long rope that was embedded in the whale's flesh.

In that time, the whale had circled an area of more than 1,000 miles, in a pattern that vindicated a long-dead US Navy researcher whose whale-tracking data had been discounted for decades.

In 1853, Lt. M.F. Maury set out from Newburyport to chart right whale migration patterns in the north Atlantic. Every time the New Englander saw a right whale's telltale V-shaped spout, he logged another sighting.

In 1870, his task completed, Maury produced a map depicting a huge oval-shaped area that stretched from about 10 miles northwest of Cape Cod out to the middle of the Atlantic. The spot, dubbed ``The Maury Smear,'' marked the area where Maury had spotted the largest number of northern right whales. In the ensuing years, however, scientists found few whales in that area and became convinced that Maury was wrong.

Until Metompkin came along.

``From a scientific point of view, it's absolutely incredible that this whale has single-handedly verified a historical record that has been doubted for dozens of years,'' Kraus said. ``This animal has proven all of us wrong.''

Scientists hope that by expanding the Internet tagging program, they will soon have equal success with other animals. Next week, researchers at the New England Aquarium plan to release a hooded seal whose tag will transmit data to Whalenet. By month's end, two blue whales that frequent the gulf of the St. Lawrence River in Canada will also become part of the program.

Williamson and Kraus also plan to tag two Alaskan bowhead whales in October, and two humpbacks in the Carribean by the end of December. Tracking information on all of these animals also will be available on Whalenet.

``Metompkin's tag was only a prototype, so we're hoping that the more animals we involve, the longer we can get the tags to last,'' Williamson said. ``Eventually, if we can get a number of tags working at the same time, we can compare and contrast the data and hopefully learn even more.''

Web-savvy researchers across New England and up and down the East Coast have described the site as the perfect coming together of age-old marine mammals with state-of-the-art technology.

``As a researcher, it's easy to get stuck in your own study area unless there's something like Whalenet, forcing you to expand your knowledge,'' said Lisa Foerster, director for the Center for Oceanic Research and Education in Gloucester. ``I use the information there to not only learn more about the whales, but to broaden what I have to offer people.''

Richard Sears, director of the Mingan Islands Cetacean Study in Quebec: ``Scientists thrive on this kind of data like whales live off krill and sand eels. We just salivate at the sight of this stuff,''

Williamson and colleague Colombo, a biology professor at Simmons, have built Whalenet into one of the world's five largest marine mammal Internet sites.

Colombo started the site in October 1993 as an outgrowth of another site he founded, called Environet. Later that year, the two teamed up and started soliciting funds from the National Science Foundation.

Whalenet received a $1.3 million, three-year grant a year ago, and the site has been growing ever since. Grant money also was used to establish regional resource centers in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., Port Aranz, Texas, and in Plymouth, where they conduct workshops for teachers who use Whalenet in their classrooms.

Among the participants is Jane Rosenbohm, who teaches elementary and middle-school in Brimfield, Ill. Whalenet is the closest many of her landlocked students have ever been to the ocean.

``The best outcome was that I saw at least 10 students out of a class of 45, who usually had a casual interest in reading at best, hunger for the chance to get on the site and find out all they could about whales,'' she wrote in a recent e-mail. ``They came in droves to my room to use my computer during lunch recess rather than be outside playing with their friends.''

Whalenet is not the only unique teaching tool Williamson and Colombo have created.

Ronald Dopsauski, a teacher at the McGovern Elementary School in Medway, said one of the site's most underrated educational tools fers is Lucy, a 55-foot inflatable humpback whale. Whalenet sells instructions for making the plastic creatures.

``When [my students] saw that life-sized inflatable whale, they went bonkers,'' Dopsauski said.

Demographic statistics show that the response to Whalenet has been overwhelming. During the school year, the site averages about 40,000 electronic hits a day. In the summer, the figure bottoms out at fewer than 25,000 - still a significant number for a site of its size. The site is listed on every major Internet search engine and appears as a link on more than 200 other pages.

Colombo's research indicates that more than two-thirds of those who access Whalenet are between the ages of four and 19. Many of the rest are people who described themselves on a survey as educators, he said.

``A large portion of our audience is based in education, but that doesn't mean we never get the occasional middle-aged business person who just loves whales,'' Colombo said.

The Whalenet coordinators said they hope the site becomes more of an educational presence outside the Internet this year. They are finishing up two educational CD-ROM disks that will be marketed around January. They also are looking into developing a ``virtual whale-watch'' for on-line users who never have experienced the real thing.

``We're doing what we love, and since we were lucky enough to hit the technology at the right time, we're expressing our passions in a creative way,'' Williamson said. ``What Whalenet really means for us is that instead of teaching 20 kids here and 20 kids there, we could be teaching 20,000 kids all over the world. If you ask me, that's pretty amazing.''

Whalenet can be found on the Internet at


Where to watch

This story ran on page c1 of the Boston Globe on 08/12/96.

Matt Villano