The right whales

M.V. Museum exhibit raises awareness about the threat to North Atlantic right whales.

With only about 400 individuals remaining in the world, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine animals. One of three distinct right whale species, the North Atlantic population played an important role in the history of the Vineyard, as it was one of the primary targets of whaling ships during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century.

In order to honor the native whale species while raising awareness of the threat to its existence, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is currently hosting an exhibit titled “Neighbors in the Deep: The North Atlantic Right Whale.”

“We’re at a critical point where we really need awareness and legislation to help protect these whales,” says Kate Logue, exhibitions assistant for the museum. “They are tied into our stories. We went out and reaped benefits from the whale, and now it’s our time to protect them.”

According to Logue, who curated “Neighbors in the Deep,” “The exhibit looks at our relationship with the whale, going back to the early colonial days. The North Atlantic right whale was one of the first species exploited commercially in Europe and the U.S.  Wampanoags would use them when they washed up on shore. When baleen and oil became more desirable, people started pursuing them — traveling further and further away as the population diminished.”

The exhibit starts with the early days of whaling, with examples of products made from baleen, the rodlike structures that some species of whales use to filter-feed. On display are things such as corset stays and umbrellas made from the flexible, organic material, sometimes referred to as whalebone. There are also whaling tools and weapons, as well as pages from an early whaling log book.

Along with these articles of historic value, the exhibit continues with the history of scientific research and conservation efforts. Says Logue of the exhibit: “It starts in the early years and takes the story up to the beginning of the 20th century, when people started realizing this is not an inexhaustible resource, and these whales were becoming threatened.”

According to Logue, one of the first sound recordings of the North Atlantic right whale was captured off the Island. The exhibit features clips from a new documentary in production by Vineyarders Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham of Film-Truth Productions. As stated in the production company’s website, the film “chronicles endangered North Atlantic right whales on their epic journey from their calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, woven with the stories of researchers, rescuers, artists, and advocates.” In the clip, visitors can listen to the early whale song recordings.

A few local artists have also contributed work to the exhibit. Paintings of whales by Cindy Kane, Jack Yuen, and Jennifer Strachan are displayed on the walls as examples of the ways in which artists are taking up the cause of these behemoths of the sea.

A distinctive feature of right whales makes them relatively easy to track. As Logue explains, “Right whales are recognizable for their callosities — rough spots on their skin. These white patches are unique on each whale. Researchers have developed methods of photographing and identifying them by these white markings and scars.” She adds that the New England Aquarium maintains a database of all the existing whales.

What we are learning from this research is that the very sparse population has been dwindling in recent years. “The birth rate has gone down, and the number of deaths has increased,” says Logue, adding that the two major human sources of mortality are ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.

The Vineyard’s whaling history is inextricably tied to the Island’s development. The right whale was so named because it was considered the “right” whale to hunt because of its slowness, tendency to swim close to the shore and near the surface, and the fact that its large amount of blubber allowed it to remain afloat after being killed.

Now, in the 21st century, Islanders in particular should make themselves aware of the threat to the whale population, and ongoing efforts to avoid extinction of an entire species. The museum staff hopes to help visitors explore the history as well as the current situation regarding the North Atlantic right whale.

“These are beautiful creatures, and there’s a lot to learn,” says Logue.

“Neighbors in the Deep: The North Atlantic Right Whale,” Jan. 28 through June 7, the Warren and Marilyn Hollinshead Gallery, Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Visit mvmuseum.org.