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Vol. 4, No. 3


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Guardian of the Bay: 
One woman's crusade to save the whales

By Andi Rierden, Editor

Deborah Tobin is making small talk next to a podium at The Pines Resort in Digby, Nova Scotia, waiting for a crowd of about 25 American tourists to settle in. Rainy weather has put a damper on the scheduled whale watching tour, and because of a program mix-up, many arrive to this large conference room expecting to hear a lecture on the Fundy tides. 

Photo: Andi Rierden
Deborah Tobin

Instead, they get Tobin, whale rescuer, educator and crusader - the woman some call the Bay of Fundy's equivalent of Jane Goodall. With slide projector loaded, she leans into the podium and with an earnest intensity forewarns the audience, "This is not going to be a happy story."

When she asks how many have ever heard of the North Atlantic right whale three people raise their hands. From there Tobin unravels the whale's dismal history: how the animal once roamed the Atlantic in the thousands; how its thick blubber was used for oil lamps and other valuables; how its buoyancy and slow-movements made it the "right" whale to kill; and how by the early 20th century it was hunted to the brink of extinction. 

Protected since 1935, the whale is facing two major 21st century threats, Tobin continues, collisions with ships and entanglements with fishing lines and nets. To illustrate, she displays a slide of a right whale first spotted as a juvenile in 1990, and known by researchers as 2030. In May of 1999, she was seen off the Massachusetts coast wrapped in fishing gear. After 2030 was spotted in the Bay of Fundy in early September of that year, a rescue team led by the Cape Cod-based Center for Coastal Studies managed to disentangle two of the body wraps, but a third remained deeply embedded in the animals back. A radio tag was attached and tracked the whale as she journeyed from southwestern Nova Scotia to off the New Jersey coast, where researchers lost contact. A few weeks later, the whale was found dead off Cape May, N.J., with the fishing line cut deeper into her cavity pulling back many feet of blubber. 

"It was heartbreaking to see how much this whale suffered," Tobin, who helped coordinate the rescue effort, recalls.

By the end of her talk the mood in the room is somber, and from the number of people who stay to ask her questions, Tobin knows she has won over more than a few supporters. 

"I think most of these people left here changed," she says a few minutes later. With the confidence of a seasoned warrior, she adds, "You can't expect people to save what they don't know. People will do the right thing if they understand."