Ocean paddle aims to raise awareness of key marine sanctuary

Rich Eldred

On a cool  morning in Provincetown Harbor Richard Wheeler and Ben Cowie-Haskell awoke before sunrise aboard the Auk, a Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary vessel. Briskly, they ate a plate of bacon and eggs, a blueberry muffin and cup of coffee.

Fishing boats rolled silently at MacMillan Wharf and a couple chugged off, only their lights visible in the pre-dawn dark. The sea barely rippled. A pick-up truck drove down the wharf. Fish splattered at the surface. A blue heron stalked the shoreline in silhouette.

“It’s 30 nautical miles to Scituate,” Wheeler said Wednesday morning in the boat’s kitchen. “We won’t be able to do it in a straight line. We’ll see when we get out then we’ll probably head for a point directly across (Cape Cod Bay). There seems to be a one-knot current so we’ll be able to take a free ride if we can hook into that. We’ll make sure we get to the land as soon as possible. Kayaks aren’t meant for the open ocean. We seem to be lucky with the weather.”

Wheeler and Ben Cowie-Haskell, assistant superintendent of the 892-mile sanctuary that stretches from the tip of Cape Cod to Gloucester, were about to embark on a three-day kayaking trip along the sanctuary’s western perimeter. The goal of the “Aukathon” is to raise public awareness of the sanctuary, which is about the size of the state of Rhode Island.

“(This will) put a face on Stellwagen for all audiences,” said external affairs coordinator Natalie Ward.

“A lot of people think it’s a financial institution when I say I work for Stellwagen Bank,” added Cowie-Haskell.

The Aukathon is also the inaugural event for Stellwagen Alive!, the friends group that was just founded.

Wheeler has paddled around Cape Cod to raise money for the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History so he is a veteran of this sort of affair. The sun rose at 6:13 a.m. glinting off the boats. Two Tesla kayaks plopped off the back of the Auk into the water.

“Our ETA is ‘later that same day’,” Wheeler remarked.

They’d paddled two marathons together over the summer and were in top shape for the 76-mile trip. The first leg was to the sanctuary headquarters in Scituate. On Thursday they were to head for the New England Aquarium in Boston and Friday they do the Boston the Gloucester stint.

The Lisa Anne and then the Twin Lights steamed past while Wheeler and Cowie-Haskell circled in the water. They carried power bars, snacks, Gatorade and water. White-winged scoters and eider ducks calmly eyeballed the interlopers. By 6:30 the boats were aimed at the Long Point Lighthouse and the paddlers stoked into the distance.

The Auk and research vessel Alert from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies followed them across the bay and all along Stellwagen’s rim.

“We’re more than a line on a map,” said Wheeler, a founding board member. “What is out there is a very interesting underwater island. It’s truly an Eden for other creatures that don’t live there year round. The birds I saw in northern Newfoundland spend their winters on Stellwagen Bank.”

Those birds include exotics like puffins and razor-billed auks.

“It is very, very rich in marine diversity and it needs attention,” Wheeler said. “People have been living off it for 300 or more years.”

Stellwagen Bank has and is fished heavily but the sanctuary also is a research resource.

“In cooperation with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, we’ve got a naturalist to go out and collect data on whale distribution using ships of opportunity (whale watch boats),” Cowie-Haskell said. “This tells us where the whales are aggregating. We’ve also compiled one of the longest-term data sets of mothers and calves and humpback pups.”

Using that data they proposed a 12-degree shift in the shipping channel and in July the new rule was adopted.

Scientists also attached tags, by suction cup to the backs of several whales.

“That provides a unique glimpse of what the whale is doing underwater,” Cowie-Haskell explained. “This allows us to understand how the whale is foraging and how it captures its prey. It appears at night humpback whales are going to the bottom, turning on their side, and scraping up the bottom, scouring up sand lances in order to eat them.”

In addition to providing habitat for whales, dolphins and seabirds the sanctuary is a custodian of history.

“Another mission is to protect and manage historic shipwrecks that exist at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay,” Cowie-Haskell said.

This April they released a report card and 10 of the sanctuary’s 17 key resources were in fair to poor condition.

“The worst being historic shipwrecks, in terms of being impacted by fishing gear,” Cowie-Haskell noted. “The best was water quality which was fairly good.”

Stellwagen bank welcomes two million visitors a year, even without ATM’s.

“Most of the visitation is through whale watching,” Cowie-Haskell said. “The other way is private boats. Another way is virtually through the web (at stellwagen.noaa,org).”

The draft management will be released soon and Cowie-Haskell would love to have people comment on it. But first he had 76 miles to kayak.

“Kayaking is kind of like Yogi Berra said about baseball,” Wheeler reflected, “ ‘ninety percent of it is mental and 40 percent of that is in your mind.’”

- The Cape Codder