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It's a whale of a job

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. _ Herman Melville, 1851.

Call him Chris Slay, the Ahab of a New Age. Like the obsessed captain of an artist's grand fiction, he too is passionate about his whales. Slay _ what a name for a whale man _ even hunts them. Yet his intention is not to strike them dead with Ahab's mighty harpoon. With every fiber of his being he tries to protect the world's rarest large whales from mortal harm.

"Inbound tanker, this is survey plane Seven-Two Seven."

Every day, weather permitting, he boards a small Cessna and flies along the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida-Georgia border and patrols the only known northern right whale calving grounds on Earth. From a bird's eye view 750 feet above the whitecaps, he tries to direct ships away from the whales and their young.

Black and shiny, blowing steamy geysers of hot breath, right whales during the winter show up in the busy shipping channels, or in front of the ever-present dredging barges, or just off the island where nuclear submarines are armed for doomsday. True leviathans, right whales grow to about 50 feet and 70 tons. They move slowly, swim at the surface, and seem oblivious to danger.

"Please be advised," Slay broadcasts over his VHS radio. "There are two right whales at the entrance of the St. Johns River shipping channel two nautical miles ahead. Over."

When Slay radios, most captains respond immediately. They know he works for the New England Aquarium helping the federal government in a new comprehensive program designed to keep ships away from whales. Yet some have no idea who he is or what he is doing. Some have no idea that large whales _ much less the world's rarest _ are found in the shipping channels of a land better known for palm trees and alligators.

Sometimes a language barrier adds unbearable tension to an already dramatic situation.

There is the ship, pushing a wake, steaming ahead, bearing down, a captain with a thick European accent at the helm.

There is the right whale mother, innocently tending her calf, the way millions of years of evolution prepared her, but in the worst possible place.

Slay tries to remain calm as disaster looms in the shipping channel.

"Right ahead of you," Slay says in a gentle southern twang. "Right whales. Just ahead. Please be advised."

As he holds his breath, the ship eventually slows. Then it changes course. His lungs start working again. In the channel, the right whale continues to suckle her calf. They're safe _ at least until next time.

"Every whale is precious," Slay later explains in an airport waiting room. "You lose one right whale, and you've lost too many."

Rarest of the greats

Northern right whales once were among the planet's most common large whales. Literally and figuratively they were the "right whales" to exploit. They swam sluggishly near shore, showed little fear of men with harpoons, and conveniently floated after death while bones and blubber were extracted. Even so, they numbered in the thousands and thousands and were hunted for 800 years. In Moby Dick, Melville was sure that whales were so many, and the sea so vast, that whalers could never kill them all.

"He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin," he wrote. "In Noah's flood he despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies."

Melville was all wet.

"Whalers put the hurtin' on 'em," Slay explains. He and Melville _ and Ahab too _ would have much to discuss.

Right whales were nearly extinct by 1930. In 1937, the League of Nations persuaded most whaling countries to leave them alone, and in 1949 the International Whaling Commission granted them complete protection. Today, only about 300 northern right whales survive in the Pacific and about that many in the Atlantic. They are considered the rarest of the great whales.

As an endangered species, the right whale is protected from intentional killing and harassment, and this year, the federal government is expected to name several coastal areas as "critical habitat," including a 200-mile stretch from the Altamaha River in South Georgia to Sebastian Inlet in Central Florida.

The ominous-sounding designation primarily would give the whales, and where they are most exposed to harm, a higher public profile. Other possible measures, including restricting shipping traffic, have been rejected, for now, by federal officials. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the program, is waiting to see how the shipping industry complies with voluntary measures to protect whales.

The Atlantic right whale, which hugs the congested coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, is especially vulnerable to shipping traffic. In the winter, pregnant whales migrate south to have their young in an area that boasts five commercial shipping ports, two Navy bases and a considerable armada of pleasure and work boats. Only seven to 12 calves are born in a good year; last winter, two calves were found dead in Florida waters. One was too decomposed to determine how it died. About the other there was no doubt: A Coast Guard cutter captain reported running it over.

"Two calves," sighs Chris Slay. "Right there we might have lost 20 percent of the new population for the year. We have to do something."

The muse of the sea

At 32, Slay is both delicate and athletic. He has light brown hair, wears metal-framed glasses and speaks quietly in bursts. Every day, after work, he goes for a long run or throws his kayak into the surf, paddles out and rides the waves to shore. Then he returns to his rented waterfront condo and listens to rock music _ the Clash or the Velvet Underground _ or curls up with his battered copy of Contemporary American Poetry or Moby Dick.

Papers, relating to his work, are piled on tables, stacked on the floor or taped to walls. A fax machine hums frantically. Old clothes and foul shoes are scattered about the living room, which seems to be filling slowly with beach sand. Sometimes Slay is so busy with whale work that he forgets housework. He forgets to eat breakfast, or eats breakfast at lunch. He's out of dishes, so he spoons his raisin bran from a huge wooden bowl that most people would use to toss a salad.

He grew up hundreds of miles from the nearest whales, on a family farm in southwest Georgia, where his father had a liquor distribution business and his mother was a schoolteacher. Slay's passion was literature and poetry. He wanted to be a poet, perhaps the next Yeats or Dylan Thomas.

The sea beckoned. After high school, he fled to the coast to work on a shrimp boat. He eventually enrolled at the University of Georgia as an English major, but every summer he returned to the sea, and to the shrimp, to make money. After graduating, he considered teaching or writing as a career. After all, he had friends in the college town of Athens who were making a living following their muse. Four acquaintances had even started a band. They called themselves R.E.M., and they were selling their dreamy records by the thousands.

Instead Slay found a position, funded by the federal government, on a dredge deepening shipping channels for Navy submarines at King's Bay, Ga. His job was watching to see if endangered sea turtles turned up dead in the dredge pipes.

In 1988, he was working on a dredge when what he took to be black plastic pipe _ two enormous pipes _ surfaced. It was his first look at right whales. He took a photograph and gave it to New England Aquarium researchers who were trying to document the presence of right whales and their calves off Jacksonville.

The New England Aquarium, a non-profit Boston-based conservation organization, had been studying right whales since 1981. That summer, when the researchers followed the whales north to Canadian waters, Slay went along as a volunteer. Later they offered him a paying job. Protecting living things who have no voice can be an art too.

"I've seen wonderful things," he likes to tell people now.

On a single amazing day off Nova Scotia, he saw the world's largest mammal, a 100-foot long blue whale. He also watched a humpback, sei, minke, fin and a sperm whale, the focus of Melville's prose. He saw orcas _ killer whales. They are the only known natural predator of right whales.

Right whales are special to him. During summer, the normally sluggish animals put on one of nature's most spectacular shows. "Imagine, a full city block of seething, tumultuous whale sex," Slay tells wide-eyed people, keeping their attention. For most of the year, right whales are slow-moving, bovine, content to spend their days straining thousands of pounds of microscopic plankton through their baleen and into their bellies.

Then amore.

When a female is ready to mate, she puts out a signal _ probably an audible signal _ that draws males from miles around. A female often is surrounded by 30 amorous males or more. Intimidated by the attention, or waiting for an especially attractive male, the female swims belly up. Males, shoving each other, jockeying for position, try to stay close enough to control her with their flippers. When the female has to turn to take a breath, the best-positioned male enters her with a maneuverable, prehensile penis that sometimes stretches nine feet.

Mating may take no more than 30 seconds. When one male finishes, another is waiting. And another and another and another. Right whales practice a natural phenomenon known as "sperm competition." Males instinctively try to wash out a competitor's sperm with quarts of their own and thereby ensure that their genes will continue.

Right whales are especially suited for the task. A blue whale, the largest animal to ever draw breath, has internal testes that weigh about 150 pounds. A right whale, half the blue whale's size, has testes that weigh about a ton.

"The largest ever to grace the planet," Chris Slay says.

When mating, right whales pay no attention to what is going on around them. Slay sometimes pulls up in a boat, takes out a compound bow, and fires a special arrow into a whale. Then he retrieves the arrow and the tiny piece of skin it has captured for a biopsy. The whales never even flinch.

"If you were making love to a beautiful woman," Slay explains patiently, "would you notice if a mosquito bit you on your back?"

The trouble with ships

In the fall, close to 10 percent of the northern right whale population heads south. This includes about a dozen pregnant females and perhaps two dozen juvenile whales. The remaining right whales vanish into the sea's great void. Researchers have no idea where.

The winter waters of South Georgia and NorthFlorida seem to be perfect for pregnant right whales, neither too warm or cool, about 55 degrees. The water is relatively shallow, which means a mother whale can better watch her calf. Orcas seldom bother right whales so far south.

A calf is 12 to 18 feet when born. It feeds on its mother's milk, as much as 100 gallons in a day, exclusively. The mother converts energy out her blubber and eats nothing during her southern stay. When a mother feeds her calf she floats unmoving at the surface. The pair is especially vulnerable to ship strikes.

Not that ship strikes are the only problem. In Canada, commercial fishers sometimes accidentally catch whales in huge gill nets anchored to the bottom. The whales usually break free. But in the summer of 1990, Slay saw a right whale in the Bay of Fundy dragging part of a gill net. Researchers were unable to cut the net loose.

The whale migrated south with other whales, getting more tired and weaker as it went along. In the winter of 1991, it washed up dead near Slay's Fernandina Beach condo. Slay helped with the necropsy, a grisly, odoriferous affair. When the pathologist plunged the knife, the decomposing, gas-filled animal exploded, routing shrieking researchers and spectators. Undaunted, Slay and the pathologist returned. The whale, probably weakened by the net, had been killed by a ship.

"In that whale," Slay says, "was the embodiment of all their troubles."

Saving the rare whale

Although few people associate whales with Florida, right whales have been migrating into southern waters for eons. The Spaniards called Jekyll Island, off South Georgia, the Isle of Whales. Fernandina Beach had a small whaling operation in the last century. But few people know about that aspect of their area's history.

Most Floridians, including some born here, have no idea that large whales _ much less whales so rare _ even visit. Slay tells them to keep their eyes open. Walking along Jacksonville Beach he has seen them cavorting less than a quarter-mile from shore.

Of course, it's unusual to spot them while beachcombing. Most of the time, the whales are well offshore, out of sight, seen by only a scattered number of mariners, who may or may not understand that seeing whales in winter is no coincidence but a natural, North Florida phenomenon.

Bill Kavanaugh is an exception. For two decades he has brought ships in and out of Port of Fernandina and made note of winter whales. "You don't see them very often," he says, "but you do see them."

But it never has been common knowledge along the waterfront. New England Aquarium researchers only knew, for sure, that right whales were having young in the South Atlantic about a decade ago. That's when an off-duty Delta pilot reported seeing a lot of whales heading south. Since then researchers have been gathering information and documenting ship strikes and mortality. They have found eight dead whales, mostly calves, in South Georgia and North Florida waters since 1988.

In an average month, more than 430 commercial ships come and go through the area used by whales. Citing national security, the military doesn't release shipping figures. But aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines travel through in significant numbers.

"The whales have to pass through an amazing gauntlet," Slay says. At least they try. Last winter, an 82-foot Coast Guard cutter from Connecticut was cruising south past St. Augustine when it hit a 15-foot calf. Nobody had told the captain that right whales and their calves were in the area. The cutter had not reduced speed or posted a watch. The whale was cut almost in half.

"The whales can be difficult to see," Slay says. "They're black. They don't have a dorsal fin. They sort of sleep at the surface. But if you're watching for them, you're way ahead of the game."

Everybody seems to be watching now. Slay _ and marine biologists from Florida, Georgia and the federal government _ are making sure of it.

About twice a month, one or all of them calls on a port and conducts a whale seminar. They put on videos, a slide show, talk about the importance of whales, and explain why captains should treat whales like other ships. They hand out "Yield Right Whale Habitat" warning stickers and ask captains or pilots who take ships in and out of the ports to attach the stickers to their charts.

"We don't threaten anybody," Slay says. No reason to, he adds: Intelligent people in the shipping industry understand that the federal government could take stronger measures than asking captains to voluntarily be careful when whales are around December through March. Stronger measures _ rerouting or closing ports _ might cost millions. Running a big ship today is a $1,000 an hour business.

On his official visits to the ports, Slay is always polite and neatly dressed. Although he is uncomfortable wearing a necktie, and never will be mistaken for a fashion model, he often wears a tie and laundered shirt and pants to these meetings.

"I come on like a young ensign," he says with a grin.

Anything to avoid looking like an "environmentalist" to the mostly conservative captains. In the firm voice he once used for reading his free-verse poetry in public, he tells them how important they are to the future of the rarest whale on the planet, and tells them he will be up in the airplane every day doing everything he can to keep them informed about where the whales are.

There have been no ship strikes this winter.

"So far," Slay says, "everything has been working like a dream. We're getting astounding cooperation."

"We don't want to be regulated," explains Lorraine Guise of the Canaveral Port Authority. "We're happy to take every precaution."

In January, a whale seminar was held in North Florida. Captain Drew Orton, of the Canaveral Pilots Association, attended. Four days later he took a large ship out the main channel. The first right whale he had ever seen surfaced in front of him. Orton immediately reduced speed. Then he figured out which way the whale was pointing, and turned the other way.

A nomadic tribe

Sometimes it is boring to look for whales from the airplane. Sometimes it is exciting indeed. On one glorious day this winter, Slay and his assistants counted 15 whales.

But that was unusual. Most days, if they see one or two, they are impressed. They call in the information to the ports, which are supposed to relay the news to incoming and outgoing ships. Or if a collision is imminent, Slay calls the ship.

Some days, he and his assistants see dolphins, leatherback sea turtles, and the gigantic ocean sunfish known as mola mola. Every once in a while, they fly over a hammerhead shark, or a tiger shark. Manta rays are common. But mostly they look down on an endless, empty sea.

"You really have to concentrate," Slay says. The trips, one in the morning and one in afternoon, last five and a half hours total. It helps that the whale researchers enjoy each other's company.

They share a commitment to the natural world, a passion for adventure and modest salaries. None of them receives medical or insurance benefits. None gets a pension. Nobody in Slay's crew is married. Sustaining a romantic relationship is difficult. Slay has tried.

"We're a nomadic tribe," he says finally. "We're always ready to pick up and move if it means a chance to look at a different ecosystem or experience the forces of the ocean in another part of the world."

They get together after work for sushi and sake at their favorite Japanese restaurant. They discuss life and they discuss whales. "Sometimes you get a sense that the whales know you're up there," says Marilyn Marx at supper. "They roll on their sides so their eye can look straight up at the plane."

"Maybe they're looking at us," Slay agrees. "Maybe they swim on their sides all the time. The thing about whales is how little we know."

The old and the new

At the little Fernandina Beach airport, a 58-year-old man named Billy Foster is waiting next to his four-seat Cessna. He was an air-traffic controller in Jacksonville before he retired. Now he works for the New England Aquarium during the winter, and on his own time practices upside down flying and loops.

Nobody on Slay's crew suffers from motion sickness. It's a good thing. When they spot a whale, Foster banks the airplane and flies in increasingly tight circles for minutes while the researchers record the longitude and latitude. The inner ear _ and the stomach it controls _ can beg for mercy. Slay advises newcomers to whale work to stow a vomit bag and Dramamine in their gear.

"If you feel sick," he says cheerfully, "don't be self-conscious."

On a windy Tuesday, Billy Foster's Cessna 180 Skylane roars to life. The plane lifts over the oaks and pines and sand dunes and golf courses and shopping centers of Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island. The wind rattles the small plane. It drops, climbs, drops again.

"We haven't seen anything for days," Slay has to shout to be heard over the engine's whine.

The plane flies low over the beach. Walkers in sweatshirts hunt for fossilized shark's teeth. Teenagers toss Frisbees. Traffic moves smoothly down A1A.

The plane heads offshore.

There are sailboats, shrimp trawls, and fishing skiffs. A helicopter whirls by. Seabirds skim the whitecaps. "A dolphin," Slay shouts. In the shipping channel, out of the St. Johns River, a Texaco oil tanker pushes a wake. Beyond is a Toyota carrier ship, bright, immense, powerful.

Somewhere swim the leviathan whales, relics of an age before internal combustion engines and fossil fuel, hidden by the great shroud of Melville's merciless sea.

"Nothin'," Slay shouts. "Not a damn thing."

Right whales

Length: up to 50 feet.

Coloration: All black except for white or grayish patches called callosites, on top of the head.

Distinguishing features: No dorsal fin; wide girth; black, short, paddle-like flippers; often show flukes or tail when diving.