As an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., much of my work involves the often invisible world of policy, laws, and court decisions. Every now and again, however, I have the incredible privilege of getting out to see the wildlife I work to protect. This past weekend, I got to do just that on a whale watching trip in one of the most important whale habitats on the East Coast of the United States—the waters off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
There were several whales in the water that day, but the most striking by far were the humpback mother and calf swimming alongside our boat. Locals told us that the mom was known as Mural, and that this was her third calf they’d identified over the years (as well as the first calf they’d seen this season). Not only did their beauty take my breath away as they gently rolled and swam close to each other and to our boat, but I was struck by how critically important our work to protect them really is. Those very whales I was watching might not have been there if it hadn’t been for our successful efforts to slow down ships and remove dangerous fishing gear from the water. And for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whales we heard were in the area (but couldn’t see because of extra protections that keep them free from disturbance by the public), it was enough to know they were there.
My trip out to see the whales was part of the fifth-annual naturalist training sponsored by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and the Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown. And not only was I lucky enough to see humpback whales, fin whales, and white-sided dolphins swimming all around us, I also got to meet the wonderful folks in the whale watching community who are out educating the public about these animals every day. These folks who ride aboard the whale watch vessels and ensure that passengers know what they’re seeing are all incredibly well versed in the science and threats to the species, but this year the workshop organizers decided they would also benefit from the broader context of the policy work that ensures we all have amazing wildlife to enjoy.
That’s where I came in. And in exchange for talking about what I do from my desk in D.C.—how we use important laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to make sure that these magnificent and imperiled species get to keep swimming in the waters off of New England—I got to learn from the folks who know these whales by name and be inspired both by what they do and what they see on a daily basis. All in all, not a bad day on the job.