Whales Inside Out
UMaine graduate student's research is piecing together the life
histories of finbacks
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
"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
"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
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
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
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.