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Whales Inside Out


Whales Inside Out
UMaine graduate student's research is piecing together the life histories of finbacks

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For Daniel DenDanto, there is no better place in the world to be than in a 16-foot rubber boat miles off the coast of Maine and within yards of the largest mammals on Earth.

Extreme whale watching.

Out of the hundreds of hours he has spent in the open North Atlantic in the past decade studying the little-known lives of fin whales, DenDanto has had four close calls. One summer when filming a BBC documentary with cinematographer Peter Scoones, a right whale came under their boat and lifted it out of the water. Another time, a fin whale collided with his small, inflatable craft. Once, as DenDanto was filming a mother whale and baby, the pair turned and came toward him. "We grazed flipper to flipper (a.k.a. DenDanto's scuba fin) as I back tread to avoid their flukes," he says.

In the fourth situation, he and his colleagues were biopsying a group of three live animals when one of the whales got close enough to go eyeball-to-eyeball with DenDanto.

"Those are wow moments; immense, impressive situations. At the same time, I'm also very aware of the inherent danger. Whale biologists work at the edge of the envelope where bad things can always happen," says DenDanto, who quips that he always goes to sea with his wallet because "I want my wife to get the life insurance."

DenDanto, of Seal Cove, Maine, a University of Maine Ph.D. student, is one of the world's authorities on fin whales, Balaenoptera physalis, which can grow to more than 88 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons. One of the fastest great whales, finbacks are capable of bursts of speed up to 23 miles per hour (20 knots) and have been dubbed the "greyhound of the sea," according to the American Cetacean Society.

For more than 15 years, first as an undergraduate at the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, then as a UMaine graduate student and scientist with COA's marine mammal laboratory, Allied Whale, DenDanto has conducted research to better understand finbacks in the wild. His expertise in ocean mammals developed to the point that he started doing skeletal articulations for museums and schools. Today, he is one of the nation's leading experts in marine mammal skeletal articulation, a sideline that is putting him through graduate school and allows him to focus on his primary research subject: finbacks.

"The oldest lactating fin whale we know of was 97 years old and possibly still having babies," DenDanto says. "When you have that long a life and interaction with other individuals, you have the potential to develop a society or culture. Are the individuals in the Gulf returning year after year because of a common food source or because there's some sort of meaning to the grouping? The data suggests the individuals we're seeing annually are not randomly associated, that they may migrate in long-term, multiyear affiliations."

DenDanto is one of those rare people who said he wanted to study an animal as exotic as whales when he grew up, and he did just that. He was 7 when the size, grace and longevity of the largest Earth mammals caught his imagination. To this day, his family isn't sure how a kid growing up in landlocked Middletown, N.Y., who summered in the Finger Lakes region, became so fascinated by whales and their ocean habitat.

In 1987, DenDanto enrolled at the College of the Atlantic to study with noted whale biologist Steven Katona, now COA's president. DenDanto's first interest was in the anatomy of whales and their physiological adaptations to the marine environment.

It was while working as a research assistant at Allied Whale that DenDanto began his study of fin whales. He started exploring biological questions in the hopes of answering long-held mysteries, such as where the species goes to breed when it migrates in the winter, and whether there is a social structure within the population.

Finbacks are found in oceans around the world, but they don't move between ocean basins. Annually, they migrate to areas of food productivity, like the Gulf of Maine. In these environments, they develop feeding strategies and associations with other individuals.

Whales are the largest, most abundant natural consumers in the North Atlantic coastal ecosystem; therefore, they have the largest impact on the region's marine environment. Yet scientists know so little about them.

"The reason we don't know much is because they're fast; businesslike and difficult to approach," DenDanto says.

Answers may be found in analyses of fin whales' DNA. Since 1991, and throughout his years as a UMaine graduate student, DenDanto has been collecting biopsy samples from live fin whales in the Gulf of Maine. Now as a Ph.D. student working with UMaine evolutionary biologist Irving Kornfield, DenDanto is studying fin whale demographics.

"For example, you can set your calendar by the return of George (a fin whale named after Washington because it was the first to be recognized through photographic identification) off the coast of Bar Harbor the third week in June," he says. "And he's been doing it now for 25 years. We want to know the meaning behind individuals that tenaciously come back to this place.

"Doing sociological research could provide a model for understanding how the species is organized globally, including subpopulations or herd boundaries. That's important information for managing the species."

In the North Atlantic, DenDanto and science colleagues, as well as many COA students, make close approaches to the finbacks. Aboard small, inflatable boats launched from research vessels or Mount Desert Rock Marine Research Station, DenDanto and his crews photograph whales that surface, hoping to document distinctive markings and other features to help the analysts make photographic identifications.

On these up-close-and-personal encounters, DenDanto also uses a crossbow-like instrument that shoots modified arrows into the skin of the whale to retrieve a pencil eraser-size tissue sample. In his genetics research at UMaine, DenDanto first tackled the logistics of fin whale DNA identification, matching the molecular fingerprints found in tissue samples with photographic identification of the cetaceans. Now in his Ph.D. work, DenDanto is exploring the fin whales' life history, combining knowledge of an individual's sex with sighting histories and kinship affiliations, such as siblingship and paternity. He is using the more than 300 biopsy samples collected during 11 field seasons in the North Atlantic.

"After years of biopsy collection, the data set is now large enough to do some testing," says DenDanto, talking about what is one of the world's largest discrete genetic samplings from finbacks, combined with photo-identification tracking, the Allied Whale North Atlantic Finback Whale Catalogue. "For me, it is the Holy Grail, where I seek answers to the questions."

This academic year, DenDanto is analyzing his data in the laboratory. When he's not doing that, he's a teaching assistant in an undergraduate class. Or he's assisting in the Molecular Forensics Laboratory, directed by Kornfield.

At the College of the Atlantic, DenDanto is now a research associate. He also is a senior whale scientist with Allied Whale, and station manager of the Mount Desert Rock Marine Research Station, located 25 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine.

However, DenDanto's first love is direct contact being hands-on with whales, whether in an articulation project or on the water. Their mystery and beauty are never far from his mind.

"I enjoy going out on the ocean. I'm driven like other people in my family. I come from a long line of workers. For me, (understanding finbacks) is like working to become an Eagle Scout. I couldn't stop until I got to the goal. I got it at 13. Whales are not unlike that for me."

by Margaret Nagle
January-February, 2006

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