Charles W. Morgan provides scientific odyssey

CORRECTION: The number of experts that took part in the Morgan's journey has been updated. There were 85 experts and not 38 as previously indicated.

Groton - Along with bringing the history of whaling alive with its travels to New England ports, the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan last summer also served as a vessel for some present-day science.

"In some ways I thought we were the intellectual riffraff, and I tried not to get in the way of the able-bodied crew," Michael Whitney, assistant professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, said in a talk Tuesday, one of the ongoing Coastal Perspectives lecture series.

Whitney was among 85 experts in various fields - among them artists, musicians, teachers and other scientists - who were aboard the 173-year-old ship for part of its journey, launched after a five-year, $7 million restoration at Mystic Seaport. Specializing in physical oceanography, Whitney used the opportunity to continue his research into how ocean waters flow and disperse. As the Morgan sailed from Provincetown to Stellwagen Bank, Whitney released four surface drifters with GPS tracking devices attached.

The devices, somewhat resembling large four-way road signs, revealed how waters off the Stellwagen Bank, a marine sanctuary north of Cape Code, flow into Georges Bank, another biologically important area. Satellite images transmitted from the drifters also showed how the four devices dispersed over time, information that has applications for cleanup of oil spills and search-and-rescue operations, Whitney said. While carrying on his research using modern technology aboard a 19th century wooden ship was a "once in a lifetime experience," he said, the most thrilling part of the journey related to the Morgan's original purpose.

"The most exciting part was seeing whales," he said, showing photos of humpback whales from the voyage.

Last summer, he said, whale populations on the Stellwagen Bank were higher than normal, thanks to a chain of events in the marine food web that supports the large mammals.

"Why were the whales there? For a buffet on the sandbanks of small fish," he said.

Sand lance, a 10-inch fish that is a favorite of humpbacks and other whales, was particularly abundant in 2014, after high levels of phytoplankton provided ample food for zooplankton. Zooplankton, in turn, are the staple in the diets of sand lance.

Anne DiMonti, director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island's Environmental Education Center, also shared her insights from the Morgan voyage. She sought to learn from the trip "where we came from in our attitudes toward whales."

The 19th century whalers who sailed the Morgan, she said, recorded some of the first information about the anatomy of whales in their journals, but, like others of their era, "had very little understanding that a species could be finite, and thought the ocean had limitless bounty."

Though people now realize that species can be finite and the ocean has limits, and there are protections on whales, they still are at risk, she said.

"Today, whales and other marine species are facing threats the Morgan whalers couldn't imagine," she said, listing fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, marine trash, chemical and noise pollution, habitat destruction and climate change among the threats.

"The Morgan is the last great lady from another time," DiMonti said. "One hundred years from now, what are people going to think about our management of the resources of the ocean? We're always going to need the ocean, but we need to find that balance between our need for the ocean and the need for preservation."

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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