The Gulf of Maine
“I think there may be something to show you here,” Charlie Horton is saying through my headphones. Horton likes the color of this water. After flying over miles of oceanic desert, skimming wave upon wave unrelieved, this blue oasis is coming alive for us, finally.
Two sleek finback whales are plowing furrows in the surface below us, at an uncommonly swift pace. Charlie banks his airplane for a better look. As he’s visually locked onto them, I glance down between the struts and am startled to see a school of very, very big fish. “Right here! Right here!”
Horton banks hard and the plane wheels in a tight, gut-jumping circle. “Yup, tuna!” he says. “Good ones! Some five-hundred-pounders in that bunch.” About a hundred giant bluefin tuna are traveling peacefully just under the surface. The animals I am looking at are so large, I expect them to behave like dolphins; that they are not coming to the surface to breathe air feels somehow uncomfortable. I have to remind myself—it seems so odd—that these large creatures are truly fish.
Close your eyes. Think fish. Do you envision half a ton of laminated muscle rocketing through the sea as fast as you drive your automobile? Do you envision a peaceful warrior capable of killing you unintentionally with a whack of its tail? These giant tuna strain the concept of fish. “Fish,” anyhow, is a matter of dry taxonomy, the discipline that tells more of your origins than of who you are now. “Fish” is a label, like your surname that relates you to both your disgraceful uncle and your extraordinary cousin, yet says nothing of you. Name is not destiny. Your relationship to those around you—your ecology, if you will—defines you in the moment.
The giant tuna rise in unison, their backs breaking wakes like a flotilla of small boats. As they continue cruising, one of them splashes and sprints forward a few yards, like a thoroughbred jittery before a race, its behavior hinting strongly of enormous power in repose. What sense of the world, what feeling, moves this animal? Is it impatient? Is it thinking?
Questions large and small come forward. The airplane turns a slow arc.
Below, in plain sight, swim giant creatures from another dimension, confined below the surface no less than we are confined above it. They feel not the breeze but the tides; they have never pressed a solid surface; they breathe by moving forward and can never rest. How may we know them?
Charlie watches the bluefins a moment and jots a note about their number and location. Charlie Horton is a professional fish spotter, finding bluefin tuna and swordfish from the air, then guiding a commercial fishing boat to them. Today, though, Charlie isn’t working with a boat. He has only me to worry about. I have formally requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin a process that could end commercial fishing for bluefin tuna. But I’ve arranged to come fishing (as Charlie refers to flying) with him and with others in New England, because many fishermen insist that bluefin numbers are increasing and that the petition should be withdrawn. I want to see if I can get their sense of things, and try to understand their lives and livelihoods a little.
We continue onward, hurtling over the shimmer, searching, scanning. White bursts—these too may be giant bluefins—draw our attention. Rather than tuna, several hundred white-sided dolphins come into focus, undulating crisply through the sea surface below. They glide up to snatch breath without breaking stride, then run along submerged, until coming easily again for the next inspiration of air. All this they do in one fluent movement, seemingly having as little need to think about breathing as we. Their fluid maneuvers are excruciatingly beautiful, a living embroidery of motion through the ocean’s wrinkled cloth. Having never watched dolphins from the air before, I am surprised that the animals are not evenly spaced. Certain individuals consort more closely together than others. I wonder if these are parents with their grown offspring, families, relatives, perhaps friends. Behind and following the dolphins, crisscrossing and coursing just above the waves, flies a loose flock of shearwaters, oceanic wanderers who touch land only when nesting. A blue shark appears, lazily wagging its way along just beneath the surface.
All the animals gathered in this one area have my riveted attention, but Charlie sheers away, and we continue along at 107 knots.
For the next thirty miles, we see little but ocean and sky. Charlie scans intently and tirelessly, as many square miles of sea surface pass beneath us. The shimmer mesmerizes me. After what seems a long while, Charlie says, “Look west.”
A couple of miles away, the activity of half a dozen whales whitens a small area in the rolling blue universe. Another isolated oasis. A hundred and twenty miles an hour is fast, and we cover the distance to the whales in a blink. Now at least a dozen finbacks and humpbacks trouble the surface below, over an area perhaps four miles in diameter. One humpback breaches and crashes back, sending up an astonishing geyser of spray and foam. Remarks Charlie, “When you see whales like this, you could see tuna anywhere around here.”
Up ahead, an enormous finback is doing some heavy breathing at the surface, sending up columns of steamy vapor each time it exhales. Signaling a deep dive with its arching back, the whale sounds straightaway like an arrow, out of sight. Directly below, two humpbacks, a mother and calf, erupt suddenly through the surface, blowing hard. Another mother and calf soon follow, up from infinity. We watch the whales moving along beneath the surface between breaths, their long and slender pectoral fins waving like the graceful arms of dancers. The whales roll forward in unison, lifting their massive tail flukes toward the sky, then flowing seamlessly into a sounding dive, digging straight down into very clear water for a few wonderfully extended seconds, before finally dissolving into that deep eternal indigo.
Charlie goes into a search pattern. His judgment that this is a place worth scrutinizing pays off. We spot a school of a dozen giant bluefins and turn hard to circle them. Their movements appear stiff, as though their massive musculature is packed into too tight a skin. Autumn is upon us, and after summering on rich feeding grounds, the bluefins are nearing their fattest. The big fish swim tautly. Their tails—sickle shaped, capable of flexion but stiff, fibrous like fiberglass—wag ever so slightly. I am looking down at a pod of zeppelins reshaped for speed. Were Atlas to put down the world for a moment and pick up a giant bluefin, it would balance in his fingers like a dart, with its greatest mass gathered up front, to carry the momentum and deliver the impact. Widest just behind the head, the animals I am watching taper rapidly toward their propelling tails. When a giant bluefin tuna decides to move, it does not so much swim through the water as split it like a wedge.
Charlie asks whether his abrupt maneuvering is making me queasy. His questioning brings me back inside my body, and I realize that the engine noise, the vibration, and the frequent sharp banking and rapid changes in altitude are getting to my stomach a little bit.
We head off to the southeast, crossing miles of featureless water over many long minutes, scanning, always scanning. Each time we go searching, my stomach recovers. Each time we find life and begin to bank hard and wheel, queasiness returns.
Off in the eastern distance, a hundred or so shearwaters and gulls are sitting on the water in scattered groups, like salt and pepper on a blue plate. We investigate. A dead whale, well decomposed, hangs vertically, producing a slick that runs for miles. Charlie banks tightly and swoops in. My poor stomach gives another tug. I dig into my sweatshirt for a package of little crackers and unthinkingly toss a handful toward my mouth; they bounce off of my headset’s featherweight mouthpiece and scatter on the cabin floor.
Several large, well-gorged blue sharks—“blue dogs” as Charlie calls them—lounge with languid leisure in the fetid slick. They exemplify carnivorous contentment. Most assuredly, this is blue shark heaven. When blue dogs die, they must hope to go to the big, reeking whale carcass in the sky. Charlie only glances at the sharks, but he watches the birds’ behavior carefully. These birds prey on the same fish and squid as do the tuna, and birds’ behavior can betray tuna hunting near the surface. Charlie tells me that once, while watching shearwaters swimming underwater, feeding on small herring, he saw one of them get hit by a blue shark during a dive. “When the shearwater come to the surface, one wing was not working. He began going in circles. The shark appeared, chasing that bird round and round like you wouldn’t believe. Finally wore the shearwater out and nailed him.” Blue shark heaven can be shearwater hell. We leave the scene.
A plump humpback, grand and beautiful, pops out at about two o’clock, to the south, idly doing barrel rolls in the water. Charlie notices an enormous streak of subtle color deep under the whale and explains, “That streak is a big school of sand eels that the whale’s been feeding on.” Tuna eat sand eels too, so we check this area carefully.
Charlie circles tightly, and centrifugal forces make themselves felt in my abdomen. Two “little” twenty-five-foot-long minke whales (“minke” rhymes with “kinky”) surface nearby. With their white-tipped flippers, the minkes look like they’re playing Ping-Pong. They abruptly disappear. Minkes were of no interest to whale hunters until the much larger whales were reduced to near extinction. Now actively hunted by Norwegians and the Japanese, who disingenuously say they hunt them “for scientific purposes,” their meat is consumed in Japan. The hunts are used as a pretext for killing other, highly endangered, protected whales, whose meat is then labeled “minke”—as DNA tests of whale meat from Japanese markets have proved. These minkes, though, remain safe from whale hunters at present.
A basking shark, gray and huge, comes into focus as though entering from the Dreamtime. Estimated length: thirty feet. It slices a slit with its immense dorsal fin. Like the great whales, this gentle giant subsists on tiny animals, straining them from the water with the cave that is its mouth. The placid monster swims unhurriedly at the surface, a life within temporal and spatial dimensions we can only begin to guess at.
Several small pods of giant tuna appear near the surface not far from the basking shark. Inexplicably and impressively, some of the giants come through the surface and crash. Horton, who has seen this a thousand times, cheers. These massive tuna are magnificent animals.
We have covered a lot of territory this morning, and seen remarkable things. Accustomed to plodding along the sea surface in a boat, I find the airplane’s great speed, which allows us to cover so vast an area and find so many pockets of life at such a breathtaking pace, literally a new experience of space and time. A fish spotter can cover, apparently, the entire Gulf of Maine in a day, keeping close tabs on where, in the moving waters, the life is concentrated.
Having come all the way across the Gulf to an area east of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Horton is heading us down to Chatham, at the elbow of Cape Cod, for lunch. He asks what I want to eat, so he can radio our order ahead. All I can think of is crackers to settle my stomach. Horton turns the aircraft to the southwest, and the outline of Cape Cod appears vaguely in the hazy distance. “That last bunch of tuna was really nice; six- or seven-hundred-pounders. Jeez they were beautiful,” he says as he reaches for the funnel and “relief tube” that drains to the outside of the aircraft. “I can fly forever when the sky and sea are this gorgeous. In the air, looking for fish—I love this. Every time I come up here, I thank the Lord.”
Earlier this morning, when I was a poorer man than I am now, I drove to the Sanford, Maine, airport and met Charlie Horton for the first time. Horton relies on finding bluefin tuna for a significant part of his income, but according to the Atlantic tuna commission, the bluefin’s breeding population has dropped nearly 90 percent in just fifteen years, and many scientists expect continued decline. The National Audubon Society has recently petitioned the government to list the bluefin under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, usually called CITES (pronounced SIGH-tees). This would effectively suspend commercial fishing for bluefin. I wrote the petition. I did so after American and Japanese representatives to the tuna commission told me that, despite the precipitous decline reported to them by their own scientists, they had no intention of reducing bluefin catch quotas.
The commission’s formal name is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. It is usually referred to by its acronym, ICCAT (pronounced EYE-cat). ICCAT comprises roughly twenty member Atlantic-rim countries, plus Japan, which is both a major fisher of Atlantic tunas and the major importer and consumer of bluefins. Founded in the late 1960s, the commission assumed authority for “tunas and tuna-like species,” including marlins and swordfish. The commission’s charter mandates that it manage for “maximum sustainable yield,” meaning, essentially, the most fish that can be taken from a healthy population without causing it to slide into long-term decline.
But according to the commission’s own scientific reports, most species the commission has authority for have, in fact, declined sharply since the 1970s. Species now at their lowest levels in history include: bluefin tuna, blue marlin, white marlin, eastern Atlantic yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna, bigeye tuna, and swordfish. Though the commission claims to be “managing” the fisheries, the only catch quotas it has are for the bluefin and for swordfish. But those quotas have always been much higher than the commission’s scientists recommended—and much higher than the populations could withstand. The commission has in effect presided over the depletion of many of the Atlantic’s big fishes. This illustrious resume suggests that the acronym ICCAT might as well stand for International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.
I wrote the bluefin petition with the hope that one international treaty organization—CITES—could force another international treaty organization—ICCAT—to act responsibly. Ideally, threat of action under CITES—which could categorize the fish as endangered—will pressure the tuna commission into reducing catches enough to let the bluefin population rebuild. In the long term, many more people would benefit from a rebuilt bluefin population—as, of course, would the fish themselves. The downside is that until the population rebuilds, people who fish for a living—good, decent, hardworking people—could be financially hurt by lowered catch quotas. But the same people will be hurt anyway if the tuna commission refuses to reduce catches and the bluefin declines even further. It is a situation that could have been avoided had the tuna commission lived up to its responsibilities and its name all these years.
But that is only my opinion. And it is based largely on the assumption that the scientific information developed by the tuna commission is accurate. Millions of dollars ride on that question. A CITES listing for bluefin tuna would suspend exports of the fish between the east coast of North America and Japan, the major market. Animals listed on CITES’s Appendix I, such as the African elephant, are considered to be in danger of extinction, and they or their parts may not be brought across national boundaries. This is the mechanism that banned international trade in ivory. If the bluefin were to be listed and the fish barred from export, the price would crumble. At U.S. prices, fishing for days or weeks to catch one rare giant bluefin tuna, as is done now, would no longer be profitable, and the fishery would become commercially extinct.
But with the Japanese market, the bluefin is worth fantastic money. Fishers can be paid, depending on the quality and condition of the individual fish, more than $50 per pound for a fish that can weigh hundreds of pounds (the largest bluefin tuna on record weighed nearly 1,500 pounds). Although the mighty bluefin tuna is capable of trans-Atlantic migrations, probably more bluefins from the east coast of North America cross the Pacific, because the next step in the transaction is a one-way air-freight ticket to Tokyo. Here wholesalers auction the fish to retailers. One bluefin tuna recently sold for $83,500, nearly $117 per pound. The 715-pound giant was to be reduced to 2,400 servings of sushi, which, because of the exceptional quality of this individual fish, would be served to elite businessmen and government officials for $75 per serving, bringing in, altogether, an estimated $180,000. One fish.
Besides high prices, the bluefin commands an awed, almost mystical respect and devotion among those who know the animal most intimately. One says, “If you talk to enough fishermen, you may sense how much we really love the bluefin and how much they mean to us. I think it’s the way the Indians felt about the buffalo.” But people love the bluefin in different ways. Fishers, conservationists, governments, and international treaty organizations continually embroil themselves in bitter international struggles over control and salvation of the fishery.
Perhaps only wolves, African elephants, and the great whales inspire the same intense controversy and anger over their exploitation and “management.” While various factions struggle to control the fishing and the money it generates, fishermen around the world hunt the bluefin with everything from harpoons to airplanes to satellites.
But none of this struggle was apparent in the gracious way Charlie Horton greeted me when we met on the runway this morning, before leading me to his bright yellow single-engine Super Cub.
Horton, zipping up his leather jacket, began the flight as he always does, preparing for the worst. “If we have to ditch, I won’t have time to explain things. You reach in here and pull out the raft and two survival suits to keep us from freezing to death. If we don’t have time to get the suits, that’s fine. You pull this handle, and you Should have a four-man raft in all its glory. Hang onto that raft, because if you let go, it’s going to take off in the breeze and you’ll never catch it. To be safe, we have to anticipate trouble.” That anticipation has already saved Charlie’s life once.
We got clearance to take off and climbed into the Maine morning. A thin ribbon of green water edged the shore; then the bottom dropped away, leaving the blue ocean shimmering, a constantly changing patchwork quilt of breeze patterns and slicks.
We climbed to two thousand feet. A mile from shore, the surface was sprinkled with thousands of lobster buoys, a broad band of colorful dots stretching along the coast to the ends of vision. Looking down, it was difficult to imagine how the lobstermen can tell whose buoys are whose, but it was easy to understand why the huge lobsters one sees mounted on restaurant walls are mostly from long ago.
While I pondered lobsters, Charlie checked a nautical chart showing the sea-floor topography of the Gulf of Maine. Looking at the ocean, he does not see the surface so much as envision the bottom. On Charlie’s map, all drawn detail is underwater. Except for the names of a few coastal towns, the land lies blank and incidental, an empty border to the sea, most useful for jotting notes. Charlie studied the map and determined a route across the Gulf that would take us over several major sea-floor features that—while remaining hidden beneath hundreds of feet of water—affect what one sees on the surface. The ridges, hills, canyons, and slopes on the bottom of the sea affect the movement of masses of water. These water masses, differing in temperature, nutrients, and oxygen, form a moving mosaic of habitats that determine the distribution of fish.
“Hundred and seven miles, hundred eighty degrees. Take us, depending on what we find and how much we dally on the way, maybe three hours going down to Chatham,” he announced.
We headed south under a clear sky, over the ocean’s blue expanse. Before long, the land set behind us and dropped out of sight, and we were without any apparent point of reference.
“Let me show you how I can tell where we are,” Charlie offered. His map is superimposed with gridded “loran”—short for Long-Range Navigation—lines, and his plane is equipped with a device that receives signals broadcast from government sending stations and, by triangulating, electronically calculates and displays its exact location. Virtually all planes and fishing boats have loran units or satellite positioning systems on board, allowing them to find and return to pinpoint locations on a trackless ocean with push-button ease.
“I can punch in the position of every group of fish I see,” Charlie explained, sliding the map over to me and interpreting notations made on a separate piece of paper. “This is from the last time I was out. I had a school of thirty-five small tuna at this point. Then over here, I saw one lone fish, a pretty good-size one.” To return to where he saw something last evening or last summer, Charlie punches a button, and the loran unit gives the heading, reads off the distance to go, draws a steering diagram, and displays ground speed and time till arrival.
Fishermen are the last major hunter-gatherers in modern culture, pursuing wildlife on an industrial scale with all the tools of the space age brought to bear. But if finding fish from the air seems a high-tech approach—and it is—the irony is that the boats Charlie works with catch the huge fish by throwing spears. Space age or not, all hunters, be they bushmen or boatmen, must be able to find and capture quarry in what remains of the concealing wilderness. Despite the tremendous advantage of the plane for revealing the fish’s position, the person wielding the hand-thrown harpoon must possess considerable skill if the operation is to be profitable. Approaching a wild, wary fish worth thousands of dollars, while a circling pilot, several crew members, and their families are depending on you for the rent, requires the “stick man” to summon a level of concentration and alert, unthinking attention that can best be appreciated only by those who do it.
Once a tuna is hit by the harpoon, the technology again advances to the electronic age. The harpoon is rigged with a hot wire that electrocutes the fish. In the old days, the fish would run out a harpoon rope attached to a big buoy and a flag. Pulling the rope and buoy would tire the fish until it could be retrieved. Occasionally, an exceptionally powerful fish would continue to run until the flag was lost from sight. One old-timer explained, “Some fish, Christ, they can just keep going and going and going. One time we stuck a fish and his buoy flag just disappeared. One week later, it come sailing back into the bay again. The fish was still alive on it.” Nowadays, Charlie explained, the zapped fish is dead within seconds. “That hummer will go about fifty feet and roll over, belly up, just like that. You haul them right aboard.”
On his best day last month, Charlie saw twelve schools of tuna within five miles of each other. The boat working with him harpooned seven fish. “Those giants were pretty tame, because we were way out beyond where most boats go,” Charlie said. “They’re not usually so easy to approach. Bluefin tuna are becoming more educated. A few years ago, you could fly an airplane over the top of these fish, and it didn’t bother them at all. This year, particularly, I notice that if you’re at anything less than four or five hundred feet, they’ll go right down. They hear the engine or see a shadow and they know it means trouble. And as the season gets along and the fish get more harassed, they’re more wary. They learn. So we’ve got a very unusual fish here. Most fish don’t seem to have the memory that the bluefin has. It never ceases to amaze me how smart they are. If the swordfish was as smart as the bluefin, he wouldn’t be an endangered species, which, in my opinion, he is. He’s in trouble. With the tuna, I think we’re in good shape, I really do. I think there are a lot of bluefins around and I hope it stays that way. I only wish the swordfish were doing as well as the bluefin tuna.”
Before he started fishing with this airplane in 1984, Charlie worked on a boat that did a lot of swordfish harpooning south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. He used to see six or eight a day and get three or four, on average. On the best days, the top guys could harpoon thirty or forty swordfish. “And then all of a sudden we didn’t see them from the boat anymore, so I got the airplane. But it dropped right off.” In 1985, the last year that boat fished, the crew caught three swordfish the whole season. “After that,” Charlie said, “as far as I know, nobody even saw a swordfish south of Martha’s Vineyard.” So he started swordfishing with Canadian boats on Georges Bank. “Three years ago we got a hundred and thirty swordfish for one boat. Last year we got thirty. This year, fifteen. They’re doing the same thing out there on Georges now, in my opinion, that we saw south of Martha’s Vineyard. Drying it right up.”
Charlie believes the swordfish’s biggest problem is caused by long-lining. A longline is a line some twenty to eighty miles long, with over a thousand baited hooks. Swordfish do not begin breeding until they weigh over a hundred pounds, and the ones harpooners saw at the surface were generally quite big. But longlines catch large numbers of small swordfish. Complained Charlie, “They get swordfish two feet long! They throw the little pups overboard dead. It’s a terrible shame to kill a twenty-pound fish that could have grown to six hundred.”
If airplanes, radios, sea-floor charts, loran, and video sonar are not enough to reveal the fish, pilots and boat captains can subscribe (via onboard fax, if that is their preference) to daily satellite-generated maps of sea-surface temperature patterns, so they can maintain a big-picture view of water movements in the habitat mosaic. The owner of several tuna-netting boats, his diamond ring glinting in the sunlight, once told me this story: “This summer, I saw on the satellite charts that a big finger of warm water had broken off from the Gulf Stream and was coming inshore. It was just the right temperature for yellowfin tuna, so we rushed one of our boats there. He loaded up with five hundred tons of yellowfin in six days, unloaded, went back, and loaded up four hundred tons in the next six days. Got eleven hundred tons total for the season; most yellowfin tuna we ever got.” This is not the same as poachers finding bears by tuning in to their radio collars, perhaps, but the analogy suggests itself. It’s not that technology is bad, but without good management guided by long-term thinking and mindful of natural limits, technology can get misused. The unpleasant reality of this—the collapse of overfished animals and the destruction of fishing economies—has been presented to us many times, laid at our feet like a dead bird brought by the cat, and we have been too overwrought each time by the tragedy and the sight to examine it and ask where all these dead birds are coming from, and with what effect. In the U.S. alone, the Department of Commerce estimates that fisheries depletions cost billions of dollars annually, and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.
After a thoughtful pause, Charlie said, “You know, I’ve thought about the Audubon Society trying to restrict bluefin tuna exports to Japan, and I said, ‘What the heck are these guys getting into this for?’ They’re supposed to be bird guys, right? But, the truth is, the fish guys have done a lousy job. I mean, a really lousy job. So I’ll support anybody that’ll save these resources. I don’t want to see these damn fish disappear so that when young fellas come along there’s nothing for them. It’s possible we could wipe the fish out, just like it’s possible to wipe out any species.”
The shoreline of the outer Cape is coming into crisp view, with its undulating white line of breakers. The beige bluffs, amber beach-grass meadows, green patches of forest, emerald salt marshes, and meandering channels sprawl in resplendent repose, their concerted colors a visual ode to joy. We fly along the national seashore at Truro, past Wellfleet, and over a lobsterman hauling his traps. Though it’s Sunday, the beach is almost devoid of people. It is September, and those who neither fish nor have an eye for migrant birds have retreated back indoors, leaving the most beautiful month to a few lucky people. At Pleasant Bay—an understated name—white boats, tugging at their moorings like ponies, punctuate blue channels.
We land smoothly on grass alongside the Chatham runway. One just-landed plane is being towed off the airstrip, having run out of fuel before it reached the end of the pavement. The pilot is laughing.
In the snack bar, several fish-spotting pilots compare impressions: “I saw a lot of blue sharks today, not too many porpoises.”
“Listen, I don’t know where your boat is, but I tell you, it’d be worth it to get them over to the BB buoy. Sand eels are thick there. That’s where you’re gonna find the tuna.”
“All week we’ve seen fish where my boat is today, except the weather hasn’t been calm enough to get to them. Now that the weather is finally good, there’s a big seine netter down there waiting to move in on them the moment they show.”
After lunch, we taxi into the sunshine and head southeast. A line of billowy clouds on the far horizon accents the blue clarity of the sky. The ocean looks bluer still, almost cobalt.
Mile after mile of rolling blue prairie flows below us, stretching to the ends of the earth, revealing nothing.
Clear, blue offshore waters are oceanic deserts, with pockets of dense life separated by great expanses of relative emptiness. In terrestrial deserts, the amount of life is limited by lack of water, while in oceanic deserts life is limited by lack of nutrients. Camel-like, many open-ocean creatures are in effect desert-adapted animals, able to cross vast tracts of barren habitat until they find the oases containing the food they need.
Thirty miles offshore, we spot a tuna seiner and a couple of planes. Perhaps they’ve found an oasis. Climbing until comfortably out of their way, we head toward them. Approaching, we realize there’s a crowd—four or five planes, a seiner, several harpoon boats, and several rod-and-reel boats pulling fake squids across the surface in hopes of luring a bite. Boats hunting tuna will travel far, running for hours and crossing miles of relatively lifeless sea, to get to where fish are. This area is filled with shearwaters, too. Enormous drifting mats of rockweed indicate that here is a great whirling eddy. Such eddies concentrate oceanic life, making it vulnerable.
The tuna seiner Ruth and Pat has just slid its net skiff astern. Working together, the skiff and seiner are making a big circle around a small group of giant tuna, surrounding them with the net. The water below us is about 40 fathoms—240 feet deep. The seiner’s net cannot reach that depth, so they have to hope they can purse the bottom of the net closed before the fish dive out. The net is so large that when the circle is completed and a curtain of netting surrounds and undermines the school, the giant fish will suspect nothing until much of the net is winched back aboard the boat.
Above the seiner, a couple of planes are making tight circles. Charlie tells me that the pilot spotting for the Ruth and Pat “is a gentleman and a real conservationist. He’s cried about what’s happened to the swordfish.” The radio suddenly crackles as two of the pilots below us begin arguing heatedly about just whose fish these are. The more heated of the two claims he saw the fish first and that before his boat could arrive the other pilot alerted the Ruth and Pat, which was closer and got to the fish first. Like a tern joining a feeding flock, another plane arrives. At twenty-five hundred feet, I am happy to be well above this tense, dense pack. We notice another school of giant bluefins running under the surface. About ten boats are streaming in now from all directions, from several miles around. The fish have been found out.
A glance back at the tuna seiner reveals that something has gone wrong. They have somehow lost one end of the net, and they send two small launches to make tight circles in the open spot, trying to prevent the tuna from approaching the breach. Now the wind is causing more problems, blowing the boat into the net circle, so that the shape of the net is starting to resemble a kidney. They regain control, and as the netting is hauled aboard and the circle becomes smaller, a dozen giant tuna, trapped and frantic, their metallic flanks reflecting the sun like signaling mirrors, are frothing what is left of the ocean being drained away from them.
In The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau described being in a net in the Mediterranean with sixty giant bluefin tuna as it was drawn up for the kill. He wrote:
The noble fish, weighing up to four hundred pounds apiece, swam around and around … . We pondered how it would feel to be trapped with the other animals and have to live their tragedy. Dumas and I were the only ones in the creeping, constricting prison who knew the outcome, and we were destined to escape. Perhaps we were oversentimental but we were ashamed of the knowledge. I had an impulse to take my belt knife and cut a hole for a mass break to freedom.
The death chamber was reduced to a third of its size. The atmosphere grew excited, frantic. The herd swam restlessly faster, but still in formation. Their eyes passed us with almost human expressions of fright.
… Never have I beheld a sight like the death cell in the last moments. The fish were out of control … . With the seeming momentum of locomotives, the tuna drove at me, head-on, obliquely, crosswise. It was out of the question for me to dodge them. Frightened out of sense of time, I … surfaced amidst the thrashing bodies. There was not a mark on my body. Even while running amok the giant fish had avoided me by inches, merely massaging me with backwash when they sped past.
The New England tuna netters’ annual season starts in late August, and in two months each of five seining vessels, crewed by about six or eight fishermen, will catch a million dollars worth of bluefins, their annual free allocation of a public resource, courtesy of the U.S. government. Two men jointly own three of the five seiners, earning a tidy sum each autumn. While thousands of other fishermen struggle to earn a living from this depleted resource, these five boats, providing only 3 percent of the employment in the fishery, are disproportionately allocated roughly 25 percent of the quota—and their fatly paid lobbyists work like sled dogs to ensure that they hang onto it.
We sheer away from the crowd. The sea surface begins rippling in places as the tide, running over submarine ledges, forms textures and rips on the water.
After traveling several miles, we cross a drift line of seaweed and flotsam—quite long—marking the border of two large water masses. On one side of the line the sea is a plankton-rich, opaque green, of coastal origin. On the other side, clear blue: water from far offshore. This is a special place of meeting. Like a forest edge against a meadow, the two water masses are two ocean habitats.
In the sea no less than on land, the confronting frontier between habitats holds dual potential, attracting the denizens from both sides. Temperatures on each side of such lines are often several degrees apart, forming a partial barrier and leading edge for the travels of swimming animals. Such zones of convergence become charged with synergy. Fronts like this one, where nutrients from continents (their presence betrayed by the dense plankton they are nourishing) become newly available to creatures in clear ocean-desert waters, often gather dense concentrations of life, at all levels of the food web. In the ocean, the fluid mosaic of habitats exists on an immense spatial scale, and right now we’re looking directly at the encounter of two big pieces in that mosaic. But tomorrow, this boundary may be miles away or, if there is a churning storm, it may be history.
Over the greener water, Charlie says, “This looks a little too cloudy for bluefins.” We cross to blue water. Near the separation zone, a humpback whale surfaces abruptly with a sharply explosive spout of steamy exhalation, then gushes a swimming pool’s worth of water out of its pleated throat and swallows its enormous mouthful. Several hundred seabirds, mostly shearwaters, flock excitedly around it, foraging for injured and disoriented fish spilling from the whale’s jaws. A second humpback surfaces, mimicking the first, then a third appears, rolls over majestically, and dives in a backflip.
Deep under the drift line of flotsam that marks the water-mass boundary is an enormous dark streak: more sand eels. The tiny animals sand eels feed on—and in turn their food—are also concentrated along these habitat edges. Several dozen white-sided dolphins come leaping and streaming into view.
We begin a circling search. A giant ocean sunfish lies basking on its side like a five-hundred-pound dinner plate. Sunfish have no commercial value at present, so they go on living placidly, eating their jellyfish, giving little grief and getting little trouble in return. I have met ocean sunfish from a small boat and found them surprisingly curious as they circled closely, fixing me with their man-in-the-moon faces, seeming to make direct eye contact.
“Blackfish!” says Charlie suddenly, with almost tense excitement, upon spotting two pods of pilot whales (called blackfish in New England). “I never tire of seeing these,” he says with absorbed affection. Charlie swoops and abruptly changes altitude, moving the plane up and down like a magnifying glass as he tries to get the best perspective. Having emptied my second and last bag of crackers a while ago—most of which again bounced off my mouthpiece and are scattered at my feet—I’m starting to feel queasy once more and I start burping, which past experience tells me is a bad sign.
It does not matter. This is an excellent vantage for studying these animals. As the pods approach each other head-on, all the individuals in each group close ranks, bunching quite tightly. Are they nervous? Shy? As the two groups meet and begin to commingle, their spacing again relaxes. Perhaps a moment of apprehension at meeting new individuals has passed.
Painting a rusty stain under the sea nearby is an enormous streak of “red feed,” shrimplike invertebrates related to Antarctic krill. Three finback whales are churning hungrily through the russet clouds. Big reddish streaks, many half a mile long, drift everywhere we look now. The leviathans come in through the extravagant provender, pumping their great flukes. With their immense mouths agape and remarkable throats distended, the whales propel themselves into the prodigious profusion of food, running the length of it, rolling on their sides and turning upside down, flashing their white chevrons. Reaching the edge of the swarms, they turn on their tails, swimming back though the teeming hordes, lazily gulping great populations of little animals. A basking shark abets this mass annihilation of inglorious invertebrates like a quiet accomplice, a great, gray, ghosting appetite, neither to be hurried nor denied.
Charlie remarks, “Boy, there are some whales in here!”
This place is alive! In every direction now, creatures far larger than dinosaurs cavort and carry on, blowing voluminous clouds of breath and breaking the sea’s surface in rings of foam. The scene is ages old. Pleistocene Park. Everything here is giant. The mammals are giant; the fishes, giant; the scale of creatures enlarged to match the oceanic scale itself. The vast sea seems boundless and expansive. From our commanding view the ocean stretches off like a tight azure drum around the rim of the world, and here against the center of this drum pounds the rhythm of the living. I feel utterly captivated, connected and rhapsodic; I feel that somehow a sweepingly enlightening, profound realization awaits just beyond consciousness—like a forgotten dream sensed upon waking—if I can take this scene in for a few more moments, just long enough to let myself open fully and encompass it.
“All right, let’s get out of here,” Charlie says. “We’ll see more giant tuna as we go north, I’m sure.”
We head back toward Maine, pushed by a tailwind. Charlie, constantly attentive to the sea surface, takes a sip out of his water jug and continues scanning. For thirty-five miles we see only water and sky. The brimming intimacy of the whales’ oasis melts away with distance, and the ocean again assumes the vaguely threatening dispassion of a vast saltwater desert.
In a surprisingly short time we are back where we found the dead whale this morning. Still here. It is late afternoon, the time of day, Charlie says, when tuna are usually traveling to the west, heading into the sun. So many mysteries. Charlie suddenly points out a dozen giant bluefins, each well over five hundred pounds, swimming in parabolic formation—a graceful arc—just under the surface. The fish are advancing as if strung together, with the two outermost fish taking the rest of the school through the water as though pulling the ends of a net.
Most fishes’ schools show synchronous movements, but not social structure or cooperation. The giant bluefins’ parabola formations are the next dimension in schooling, the most advanced social grouping among fishes. “The most striking feature of tuna schools is the degree of organization,” wrote Brian Partridge and his colleagues from the University of Miami, who studied bluefin groups in New England waters. “Giant bluefin exhibit the most rigidly defined school structure which has yet been observed in any fish.”
Not every bluefin school looks the same, though, because the rules determining the schools’ structure and form—the position and spacing of the individuals—are based on the number of fish present. The animals at each end of the parabola must be able to see each other in order to maintain the formation. If there are too many fish in the school and too much distance from one end of the parabola to the other, the outer animals cannot maintain visual contact, and the school must be organized differently. So bluefin parabolas are usually formed by groups containing fewer than fifteen individuals.
Bluefins’ parabolas serve two functions. One, they provide significant energy savings from easier swimming. With their pectoral fins outstretched, the bluefins take advantage of the lift generated by their neighbors (similar to geese flying in formation); they can also gain increased thrust without increasing effort by “pushing off” of the compaction of water against each other. Second, and more importantly, the parabola formation functions as a dragnet, allowing the bluefins to corral and envelop prey schools they encounter as they travel. As this linear formation advances, the bluefins at each end are the school’s leaders, the middle ones the followers in a sense, but each animal is on the front line. The bluefins in their parabolas, say the scientists, practice “cooperative hunting of the sort usually associated with cetaceans [whales and dolphins] or group-living carnivores such as lions or wolves.”
The label “fish” says as much about their lives as a toe tag in a morgue. Taxonomy be damned. Watching them, I imagine the giant bluefins watching one another closely as they travel, monitoring each other’s pace, their great bodies glowing softly in the water like polished tin, producing soft halos around themselves, their enormous eyes swiveling as they search. I imagine looking now ahead for prey, then glancing across at the lead fish, looking over at your neighbor, checking your schoolmates’ flanks for signs of an excited flush of color indicating someone has spotted prey in the distance, beyond your field of vision.
According to the loran, these bluefins are only a quarter mile from where we first saw tuna this morning; they may be some of the same fish. Shearwaters rushing toward white explosions nearby call our attention to about thirty medium-sized tuna, between one and two hundred pounds, chasing frantic prey fish at the surface. The prey spray into the air, looking oddly like flocks of sparrows rising and disappearing. By the time we make another circling pass, more than seventy-five tuna have surfaced and are rushing prey, a drama of great beauty and confusion. Charlie makes note, then proceeds, commenting almost wistfully several times about how beautiful those giants in parabola formation looked. He turns for home. One of the most memorable days of my life is drawing to a close.
We hit the runway at five-thirty. Charlie says, with exceptional graciousness, “Any time you want to come out with me, you can. I can use a pair of eyes like yours to help me spot.” When I had offered to buy Charlie Horton lunch, he’d said, “I’ll get lunch. You can get dinner.” Arriving here, it turns out he had no intention of staying for dinner. He was headed up toward Rockport for the night, and he took off after refueling.
Copyright © 1997 by Carl Safina All rights reserved.