Feature Story

Joe and the Whale

Joe Howlett gave his life to save an animal that may already be past the point of no return. After ten centuries of annihilation, is there any way to undo the damage done?

by Chelsea Murray
Illustrations by Aziza Asat‏

Sunrise on the St. Lawrence‏

“The whale was the future, the present and the past, all in one; the destiny of man as much as the destiny of another species.”

– Philip Hoare, The Whale


he day Joe Howlett died dawned perfectly. The water in Shippagan Harbour was flat like glass, the winds calm, the sun rising into a dark blue sky as Joe maneuvered the Shelagh—the Canadian Whale Institute’s research vessel—into the Gulf of St. Lawrence for a day of surveying North Atlantic right whales and sampling for zooplankton off the coast of northern New Brunswick. Out on open water, Joe, and any on-board scientists not still in their bunks at that early hour, marveled at the morning’s perfect golden light—and the three tall ships they encountered, arriving in full sail for a summer festival. Joe, 59 years old and a near-lifelong sailor and fisherman, was ecstatic over spotting the boats.

The weather was a blessing in more ways than one: besides their regular scientific tasks, the crew knew that Joe, along with Philip Hamilton, the Shelagh’s chief scientist, might attempt a whale rescue on the open water. The previous night, they’d received a call from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO): A right whale was tangled up in crab-trap lines near their location. When the fisherman who’d spotted the whale tried to get close, it went wild, thrashing in the water, its huge body criss-crossed with the characteristic deep white scars borne by whales who’ve been entangled in fishing gear. (Eighty percent of the world’s 450 right whales have been snared at least once in their lifetime, 50 percent twice or more. Instead of their smooth, natural jet-black skin, many right whales’ bodies are now covered in bright white scars.)

When the call came in, Hamilton—also a biologist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium—had just plotted the team’s course for the next day. He plugged in the whale’s GPS coordinates and saw they’d be working less than two kilometres away. Sure, he told DFO, they’d try to find it.

For more than 1,000 years, humans have been climbing into tiny boats for the chance to slay a whale. Joe was a member of the first generation to do the same thing to save them.

It wasn’t an unusual request: Joe was one of the founding members of the Campobello Whale Rescue team, a group of fishermen volunteers who’ve worked since 2002 to free whales caught in fishing line off the coast of the Maritime provinces. He was one of the world’s foremost disentanglers, a veteran of countless intimate encounters with trapped, distressed whales weighing up to 70 tonnes.

Last year was unprecedented for the critically endangered animals. Fishermen and researchers were finding more dead right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than ever before, either killed by ship strikes or tangled in fishing gear. Often unable to swim freely or feed, entangled whales die of starvation, or infection from the ropes cutting deep their flesh—day-after-day, month-after-month, sometimes slicing into the bone. By July 9, 2017, the day the Shelagh crew got that call, seven dead whales had been found in four weeks, and biologists were hauling in the carcasses for necropsies.

Joe’s last disentanglement had been only five days earlier, when DFO officers had joined the Shelagh in the Gulf for a rescue. The Shelagh had been trying to get close to the whale for more than an hour before it suddenly, surprisingly, stopped resisting and floated limply in the water. That’s when the DFO officers arrived. After that, Joe was able to cut the lines in just 15 minutes, an incredibly efficient operation, since it typically takes hours to free a whale—especially right whales, notoriously agile and wild.

As a fisherman, Joe knew that the way these creatures were snared, year after year, was a by-product of his own livelihood. (A few years ago, gear from a boat he worked on actually turned up on a right whale off Daytona Beach.)  Joe rescued whales first and foremost because he felt that he owed it to the ocean. He was driven by a desire to give back. But not unlike the whalers of old, he thrilled to the open ocean and the rush of adrenaline that comes with sidling up to a giant, some of the largest animals ever to have lived. For more than 1,000 years, humans have been climbing into tiny boats for the chance to slay a whale. Joe was a member of the first generation to do the same thing to save them.

That’s why, on that perfect July morning last summer, he was so especially anxious to get out on the water.

The Man Who Loved the Sea‏

“Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick


oe Howlett, Joey to his family, grew in the Hubbards, Nova Scotia train station. His father was station agent, and every day Joe watched people come and go, as he stayed rooted to the same place. He spent his childhood fishing, sailing, and playing sports, rarely straying far from his birthplace until the summer of 1975, when he was 17.  That summer, he and his friend Steve Croft joined the crew of a Shell research vessel heading north to conduct seismology surveys for oil exploration. They sailed to Sable Island, Newfoundland, Baffin Island, and then on to Greenland, working six hours on, six hours off on opposite shifts as galley cooks for the crew of 30—before Joe got promoted to deck hand partway through the trip.

They saw icebergs floating south on the Labrador Sea, and polar bears wandering the coast. They spent a week tied up in Greenland, and on Baffin Island they traded little rings they’d made out of polished nuts for carvings from local Inuit. When they got back to Halifax at the end of the summer, Steve, Joe, and about six others sailed the boat down to Galveston, Texas, its home port. Day after day, they watched the American coast stretch out beside them as they sailed south. The hard work was done, and they spent their evenings talking and writing letters home. Croft says it was the first thing resembling a vacation Joe had ever been on.

Joe never went back to Hubbards to finish high school; instead he joined the Coast Guard and, through his early 20s, he broke ice in the Northwest Passage on the Louis S. St-Laurent, circumnavigated North America, and got caught in a hurricane in the Bermuda Triangle.

In 1986, at age 28, something changed in Joe again. He was working for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography,  mapping the seafloor around Campobello, a tiny New Brunswick Island of 900 people a few hundred metres off the coast of Maine. His ship was docked at a wharf within walking distance of the Canadian Legion, the only bar on the island at the time. At a community dance there one night, he met Darlene Brown, a born-and-raised Campobello islander, and daughter of a herring fishermen. She asked him to stay. Joe told her he couldn’t—so she got him a job with her father.

“There were three things in life Joe said he was never going to do,” says Joe’s brother Tony Howlett. “He said, ‘I’m never going to move to New Brunswick. I’m never going to get married. And I’m never going to be a fisherman.” And he did ’em all in the same year.”

He and Darlene married in 1987. They had a son, Tyler, and Joe became a second father to Darlene’s first son, Chad. And Chad’s father, Michael Brown, another islander, became one of Joe’s best friends.

If Joe was settled, he still brought a sailor’s sense of adventure to his little island life. He helped start the Frog Pond Warriors hockey team, made up of islanders and residents of Lubec, the tiny, faded Maine fishing village on the mainland, connected to Campobello by bridge. On the hours-long drives through Maine to play senior-league games in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, they’d take the back roads home in the dark, just to make the trip last longer. He taught his friend David Anthony to sail, sneaking out with him on the water every chance they got. He brought his harmonica everywhere, in case there was any chance to break it out. “It wouldn’t matter if he was shovelling shit,” says his friend Mackie Greene. “He’d be having fun.”

Tony says that the last time he and Joe were together, Joe told him he was “some happy” with the way his life had turned out. “I’ve got my kids here. I’m going to stay here the rest of my life,” Joe said. “This is it.”

Campobello was also the first place Joe got close to whales. Out alone one night not long after moving to the island, pulling a herring seine through the pitch-black water, Joe heard them following his little boat and the fish he was hauling in, calling out to another, their backs breaking the surface all around him. When he told his sister, Mary Ellen Lonergan, she worried for his safety. What if they got too close, tipped his boat?

“Joey, aren’t you afraid?” she asked.

“Mel,” he said. “They know I’m there.”

The Fifth Day

“And God created great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the Earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.”

– Genesis 1: 2123


t seems quaint today, but in the early 1800s, naturalists poring over freshly unearthed fossils were still arguing over whether or not the complete extinction of a creature—its total elimination at human hands or by natural selection—was even possible.  Thomas Jefferson, third American president and a big-time wildlife hobbyist, wrote, “Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.” In other words, nothing can go extinct, lest it disprove the perfection of God’s creation. Tell that to the mastodon, the bison, to little unassuming creatures like the Wyoming toad. Tell it to the right whale.

By the 11th century, at the latest, the Basques were climbing hills and towers above the Bay of Biscay, looking for North Atlantic right whales. These massive, slow-moving animals socialized at the ocean surface, and, thanks to an immense layer of blubber, floated on the water like fat black corks long after they were killed. “Whalers could literally sit on the shore, wait for a right whale to swim by, boat out there in a canoe or a ship, kill the animal, and then tow it back,” says Mark Baumgartner, biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and chair of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a collaborative, data-sharing group of conservation organizations.

In the 16th century, whales were still aquatic enigmas. Artists depicted them as giant devil-fish, with long teeth, spikes, eyes speckling their bodies, and even snouts.

For centuries, with just row boats and harpoons, this was how humanity exerted its dominion over God’s abundant giant. By the 16th century, when stocks in the Bay of Biscay started dropping, the Basques sailed farther, to the coast of Newfoundland, where they hunted bowheads. By the 17th century, whale oil powered Western civilization, and the North American whaling industry, centred in Massachusetts, was its epicentre. Right whales—as in the “right whale” to kill—were a favourite target, yet we understood almost nothing about them. It wasn’t until the creation of modern taxonomy in the 18th century that naturalists even started to grasp the differences between species; until then, right whales were known by different names: they were sardre (school) in Basque country, svarthval (black whales) in Denmark, Noordkapers (from North Cape) in the Netherlands, and sletbags (smooth backs) in Iceland. The possibility that it could be the same creature migrating to all of these places—a global species—was unfathomable.

In North America, right whales were called the true whale, the whalebone whale, the seven-foot-bone whale, and the rock-nose whale. But to the landlocked across the globe, they were a frightening mystery—aquatic enigmas. In the 16th century, artists depicted them as giant devil-fish with long, pointed teeth and spikes, eyes speckling their bodies, and even snouts. “For the modern world, the whale is a symbol of innocence in an age of threat,” writes Philip Hoare in his book, The Whale. “History, on the other hand, saw peril in the great fish that swallowed Jonah, or on which Sinbad found himself, a gigantic whale ‘on whose back the sands have settled and the trees have grown since the world was young.’”

All the easier to kill them en masse.

The cull let up briefly when we replaced whale oil with petroleum, but ramped up well beyond its previous capacity with the invention of harpoon launchers and factory ships.

By 1930, 50,000 whales were killed annually, and in the post-war years, whale oil was a cheap filler, used in everything from margarine to ice cream, fertilizer to soap. A study in 2015 estimated the total number of whales killed in the 20th century at nearly 3 million. Reporting on this in the British journal Nature, reporter Daniel Cressey wrote that “other famous examples of animal hunting may have killed greater numbers of creatures…but in terms of sheer biomass, 20th century whaling beat them all.”

Commercial whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 (though a few nations, including Japan, Norway, and Iceland disregard the ban). Some species have rebounded since then—humpbacks and Antarctic minke whales, for instance, are expected to reach their pre-whaling population numbers by 2050. But for the right whale—the so-called urban whale, which shares its habitat with our industrialized coastlines, and whose population in 1986 was less than 300—the decline was too steep, and the waters it shared with humans rife with far more danger.‌


A Cure for Extinction‏

“If we were to assume these whales are ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused their extinction.”

– Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home


harles “Stormy” Mayo has always made his living from the sea. Unlike the rest of his family, who first settled in Cape Cod in 1659, he’s done so not by hunting what lives within it, but by studying it. After earning a degree in biology at Dartmouth College and a few post-grad degrees from Miami’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, he decided he was too much of a radical for academia, and moved back to Provincetown, at the cape’s farthest tip, to build a schooner and live a quieter life. But within a few months, he’d teamed up with a friend to oppose a harbour-dredging project. That endeavour became the Center for Coastal Studies—initially a two-man activist organization, and now a hub for scientific research and coastal stewardship.

One day in April 1983, Mayo was working a whale-watching boat in Cape Cod Bay when he saw a few right whales swimming nearby. After explaining to the crowd how rare it was to see them there, an elderly woman approached him. Their brief exchange was so critical to Mayo’s research that 35 years later, he still vividly remembers her hair whipping in the wind as she explained that while working at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, she’d seen documents suggesting that in centuries past, Cape Cod Bay was an important whaling ground not in spring or summer, but in the dead of winter. “I’m not a biologist,” she told him, “but I would think that if you wanted to find right whales, you would look then.” The following January, Mayo checked it out.

By the end of that month he’d spotted his first right whale just outside the harbour. After that, he’d regularly see two, three, four whales at once—at a time when right whales were a mystery to most biologists. “That year,” he says, “we blew everyone’s minds.”

Three years earlier, Scott Kraus* from the New England Aquarium had found a big group of right whales congregating in the Bay of Fundy during the summer months. He developed a method of identifying individuals in part by the raised and roughened patches, called callosities, growing in unique patterns on their skin. After a few years of identifying, photographing, and cataloguing the whales, researchers could finally say how many were out there: around 270. The population was small, but it was slowly, unexpectedly growing. There were two big impediments: ship strikes and fishing gear.

Death by ship strike is easy to explain. It’s blunt-force trauma, leaving whales the roadkill of the sea. But entanglement is more complicated, and gruesome. Whales wrapped up in fishing line might drag that gear around with them for years, the force of the water against their bodies pulling the nylon ropes deeper into their flesh, and sometimes their bones, exposing the wounds to water-borne viruses and bacteria. The drag can make swimming to food sources taxing. And the rope sometimes gets tangled up in their baleen, making it difficult to feed. Entangled whales may die of infection or starvation, and the stress of it all might even be causing females to delay pregnancy, which means not only more dead whales, but fewer calves too.

Much like harpooning a whale, rescuing one is a mad frenzy for life, all cold spray, hot blood, and adrenaline. There’s an intimacy in this act not unlike that between predator and prey—appropriate, since disentangling is sort of like whaling in reverse.

While Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute, and others were advocating to get shipping lanes moved in the Bay of Fundy, Mayo and his friend David Mattila were developing something much more immediate, and much more dangerous: disentanglement, a means of whale rescue that borrowed from centuries-old whaling techniques, and was pioneered in the 1970s by whale researcher Jon Lien at Memorial University in St. John’s.

Much like harpooning a whale, rescuing one is a mad frenzy for life, all cold spray, hot blood, and adrenaline. There’s an intimacy in this act not unlike that between predator and prey—appropriate, since disentangling is sort of like whaling in reverse.

After talking with Mayo’s father, Charlie, a lifelong fisherman who had sometimes hunted for pilot whales off Cape Cod, Mayo and Mattila had an idea. If they could “keg” a tangled whale (something old-time whalers used to do with wooden floats) by attaching a plastic buoy to the lines wrapped around it, they might be able to tire it out and get close enough to cut the lines off.

Instead of a harpoon, rescuers throw a grappling hook, tethered to a control line and buoy, into the tangle of rope on the whale. Once they’re close enough, they use a gaff—a modified jack knife fastened to a long pole about the length of a harpoon—to cut the rope off line by line.

In October 1984, they were ready to try it on an entangled female humpback named Ibis off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She escaped their first pursuit, but a month later, on Thanksgiving, Mayo, Mattila, and a small crew went out with hydrophones and an inflatable Zodiac boat to record a group of humpbacks singing near Provincetown. When they got there, they found Ibis, still tangled, and far thinner than when they saw her last.

The team didn’t have any tools, so a few of them sped back to pick up more line, a plastic buoy, and a second Zodiac. And then they got started. They used a small boat anchor as a grapple and hooked a control line and buoy into the fishing line wrapped around the whale. Just as the old whalers described, Ibis, too exhausted and depleted for a chase, simply stopped after a few minutes of swimming. Leaning over the side of the little boat, Mayo and Mattila used a filet knife to cut away the nylon rope threaded through her baleen. And then she was free.

After this first disentanglement, Mayo and Mattila continued to work with Charlie to design tools especially for the task. And soon, staff at the Center for Coastal Studies started training people all over the world, including, in 2002, Campobello Whale Rescue co-founders Joe Howlett and Mackie Greene.

It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do this work, and in different ways, Greene and Joe were perfect for it. In the early 2000s, they were each running their own whale watching boats, and were both used to working with rope and spending long hours on the water. There was enough friendly competition to keep things interesting, and they just clicked. “A lot of times Joe would just point,” says Greene, “and I could tell where he wanted me to drive the boat.”

Joe was also the team’s driving force. “He pushed the envelope,” says Joe’s friend and fellow fisherman and disentangler, David Anthony. “He was one of the best, there’s no doubt.” As a trained Coast Guard officer, Joe was also adamant about safety and seamanship. If a disentanglement seemed too dangerous to attempt, the crew wouldn’t do it.

DFO supplied them with a single fast-rescue craft when they started, and the New England Aquarium kicked in occasional gas money. Eighteen months later, Joe convinced Anthony to join too. One day, on the deck of the lobster boat they both fished on, Joe told Anthony he believed they owed something back to the ocean.

Today, Greene and Anthony talk about disentangling like this transcendent thing. Have you ever looked a humpback in the eye? Can you imagine rescuing a creature so big you can’t see it all at once?

There’s a video online of Joe disentangling a right whale in 2016, in which you can see the sheer physicality of the act, and its emotional weight too. In his red and black Campobello Whale Rescue suit and his signature sunglasses, Joe throws himself down against the inflated gunwale of the orange Zodiac—his movements powerful, focused, and determined—thrusting the gaff again and again into the water. At the end of the video, as he’s pulling in the gear after freeing the whale, you can see the sweat and exhaustion on his face. (The video shows the last two minutes of the rescue, but Joe, Greene, Brown, and former DFO officer Jerry Conway had been at it for four hours.) Greene, outfitted in the same red-and-black jacket and a white helmet, gives a holler and lifts his arms into the air triumphantly. You can sense the lightness in that feeling.

Today, Greene and Anthony talk about disentangling like this transcendent thing. Have you ever looked a humpback in the eye? Can you imagine the adrenalin rush of rescuing a creature so big you can’t see it all at once? Or maybe it’s that you can’t look at it all at once, as Greene says, because “you’d almost get weak in the knees if you did.” The pair have chased a finback whale from Campobello to Brier Island in the middle of the night. They’ve been lifted out of the water by a humpback. The chase can feel like torture, they admit, but it’s necessary.  “It’s an animal that’s suffering,” says Greene. “You’ve got to try to do something.”

With the population poised to fall off a cliff, it’s never been more important to save even a single right whale.  But that reason, of just wanting to give back, doesn’t explain the excitement that rises up in their voices when they talk about the act. There is something indescribable about feeling the breath from a whale’s blowhole on their skin. Maybe the bond they share is built as much on that as on trust and shared experience. It takes a particular kind of person to take that risk—someone driven by the prospect of saving a whale, but also by the desire to feel wild too.

On Every Beach, a Dead Whale‏

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed.”

– Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction


n 2003, the Canadian Whale Institute convinced Transport Canada and the International Maritime Organization to move shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin, off Nova Scotia’s South Shore. The risk of vessel strikes declined in some areas by 90 percent, and the right-whale population reached 483 by 2010. The species became an emblem of conservation success, of how humans could return to some modicum of health what we had spent centuries annihilating.

But something was happening under the water: ocean currents started moving masses of zooplankton, which the whales eat, away from the established right-whale habitat, away from the new safe zones in the Bay of Fundy, away from areas scientists were watching.

There had always been peaks and valleys in Fundy’s right whale population, but in 2010, researchers noticed fewer whales in their usual feeding grounds. The quantity and quality of zooplankton in the bay had also dropped. One theory is that since cold water carries more oxygen, as the Gulf of Maine warms up (which it is, faster than 99 percent of global oceans, thanks to the northward shift in the Gulf Stream and slowing ocean currents), the ocean is dragging zooplankton north to colder waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

And the whales are following their food into new territory: stretches of ocean where ships don’t slow down, where each spring, exactly when whales arrive, near-unbreakable ropes attached to thousands of crab traps are dropped from the surface of the ocean to its floor, an underwater forest of nylon, waiting to ensnare whatever passes through.

By the end of last June, Tonya Wimmer was getting tired of sending out emails about dead whales in the gulf. As director of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) in Halifax, it’s her job to connect with rescue teams and researchers when an entangled right whale is spotted. It’s also her job to notify the research community when a dead one is found, like they were on June 18, 19, 21, 22, and 23 of 2017. “Everyone was just so baffled,” she says. “That was the worst thing: “Guys we have another one, and another one, and another one.

Researchers needed to find out why exactly each one of those whales had died. First, they tried to take samples (chunks of skin and blubber, essentially) from a dead whale out on the water. Pathologist Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust from the University of Prince Edward Island actually climbed on top of one bloated whale carcass to cut away pieces for testing in the lab. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to work, DFO gave MARS permission to haul subsequent dead whales to shore, using large government vessels, for necropsies.

A whale necropsy involves a crew of 30 or more. An excavator peels off the outer layer of blubber in strips, and then muscle, and organs, until the skeleton is exposed. Some of the whales were wrapped in rope cutting deep into their skin—their cause of death seemed obvious: starvation or infection. Inside others they found masses of black putty: internal bleeding from blunt-force trauma caused by ship strikes, which had cooked inside their floating bodies in the summer sun. “I spent almost every weekend going to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Maritime provinces,” says Wimmer, “and almost every one of them had a very large dead whale on it.”

Of the 12 whales that were necropsied or examined at sea last year, two died from entanglement, four from blunt-force trauma, and the rest were too decomposed to tell for sure.

Two whales were saved, both by Joe Howlett.

Tragedy on the St. Lawrence

“…you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then
they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire…”

– Mary Oliver, from “Humpbacks”



ut on the St. Lawrence on July 10, Joe and the Shelagh crew received the new coordinates for the entangled whale from a survey plane. They spent the next few hours boxing in the area, driving north, east, south, north, east. Still no luck. Around mid-morning they had a rendezvous with DFO officers, who’d come out on a fast-rescue craft to meet them. They were the same officers with whom Joe and Hamilton had so efficiently and quickly untangled another right whale earlier in the week. During their meet-up, they got word that another survey plane had located the whale 16 kilometres away. The Shelagh was too slow, so Joe and Hamilton jumped into the DFO boat and took off.

They arrived just after 10 a.m. to find right whale 4123, a six-year old male, in a serious mess. Fishing line was wrapped tight around and around its body and flippers, and in through the baleen in its mouth more than 10 times. Hamilton and Joe explained to the officers that this wasn’t going to be as easy as the first time. “Right whales don’t look like they should be able to bend in the way they can,” Hamilton warned them. “But they can practically touch their tail to their head.”

Joe took his place at the bow, standing ready with his gaff. Hamilton stood at the back near the wheelhouse so he could direct the DFO captain where to move the boat. They motored cautiously toward 4123, and it fled their pursuit at a steady three or four knots. From their position, Joe could see that some of the lines at the back of the whale weren’t cinched tight, which would give him some space to make a cut. The boat caught up to 4123, and the captain maneuvered parallel to its massive body. The whale didn’t veer away, and it didn’t dive either, so Joe shoved his gaff toward a line and cut it. 4123, probably stressed and in pain, flipped its tail and sprayed water into the boat.

The captain eased up to let 4123 settle, and then they made another approach. Again, Joe thrust his knife into the tangle of lines, targeting a second taut one. He hooked it. Hamilton remembers seeing the whale sink into the water and turn toward the boat. Not unusual. Joe was still heaving on the line with his knife as 4123 disappeared under the bow. Joe was pulling and pulling—and then, Hamilton didn’t see it, but the DFO captain did. Joe turned around, flashed a smile, and gave the crew a thumbs-up. He’d cut the line. Then the captain saw 4123’s fluke rise out of the water behind Joe, before its whole tail came crashing down. Hamilton turned around in time only to catch the tail bounce off the side of the boat. They all saw Joe sitting, limp, against the gunwale, facing the wheelhouse.

Hamilton raced over. He was trying to figure out whether Joe was conscious or not when Joe took a series of quick inhalations. “I desperately wanted that to be him breathing, but some part of me knew that it wasn’t, because there was no exhalation,” Hamilton says. He tried to find a pulse, but couldn’t. He asked the crew if anyone had a mirror to hold up against his mouth to see if he was breathing. One of the DFO officers brought over a cell phone. “It was maybe a minute or two where I just didn’t want to acknowledge the severity of the situation. I just didn’t want it to be true.”

The crew helped lay Joe down on the floor of the boat. Worried about a spinal injury, Hamilton placed a light jacket under his neck, and then he started compressions. A DFO officer radioed the Shelagh. And then they were speeding back.

On the Shelagh, the crew pulled out some Band-Aids—they had no idea how bad it was. When the DFO boat arrived, Hansen Johnson, who had advanced first-aid training from a couple of seasons on ski patrol, jumped aboard with a defibrillator. He knelt down beside Joe and very gingerly tilted his head back, which lifted his chin and kept his airway open while Hamilton continued compressions.

The cadence of their repeated movements put them in a kind of trance, helping them ignore how exhausted they were. They did this, alone, for an hour and a half as the DFO officers organized an emergency response over the radio and drove as fast and as steadily as they could, the calm ocean having turned to chop. Eventually they rendezvoused with a Coast Guard cutter, which took another 90 minutes to get to the dock.

When they finally arrived in Shippagan, emergency crews had a section of the wharf cordoned off. The medical team connected Joe to a portable EKG, and after running a few tests, pronounced him dead in the boat.

“I knew from my training that if you’re doing CPR, the person does not have a heartbeat,” says Johnson. “You are maintaining this chance that they can be resurrected by continuing to keep their organs functioning. Because without that, there is no hope.”


Suppose God came back from wherever it is he’s been and asked us smilingly if we’d figured it out yet. Suppose he wanted to know if it had finally occurred to us to ask the whale. And then he sort of looked around and he said, ‘By the way, where are the whales?’”

– Cormac McCarthy, Whales and Men


n July 15, 2017, more than 400 people from Campobello and the whale conservation community descended on the island’s tiny Baptist church to celebrate Joe’s life. It was the largest funeral on Campobello that the community can remember. “Some people have lived here 20, 30 years, but they’re still not islanders. Joe was an islander,” says Mackie Greene. “He would go to anybody’s house. He wouldn’t knock or anything; he’d just walk into the house, go to the fridge, and get a beer. If there was something to eat on the counter, he might have something. He just fit in. He was one of us.”

After the accident, Greene struggled to give whale watching tours, afraid the whales would come too close when he had kids on the boat. “I just wanted to run right over top of them,” he says.

Transport Canada put a pause on disentanglements while it conducted an investigation. “He would be just beyond himself,” Tony Howlett says of his brother. “If that would have happened to someone else, Joe would have his own boat and he’d be out there himself. He wouldn’t care what they said.”

By the end of the year, 12 whales were found dead in Canadian waters, and three in American waters. On October 5, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative released its right whale necropsy report, confirming what everyone already knew: the dead whales had been killed by ship strikes and fishing line. At the Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting the same month, Mark Baumgartner and the American Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Peter Corkeron told attendees that they’d done the math. There are about 100 breeding females left, and at least four or five die per year. That means four or five calves need to be born each year just to keep the population stable. As far as we can tell, none were born in 2018. If this continues, says Baumgartner, “the population will be beyond the point of no return in two decades.”

After the accident, Greene struggled to give whale watching tours, afraid the whales would come too close when he had kids on the boat. “I just wanted to run right over top of them,” he says.

This March, the Government of Canada announced serious, albeit controversial, steps toward real conservation. They lifted the pause on disentangling right whales, and Greene and Anthony are now ready to rush out as soon as they get a call. There will be increased aerial and at-sea surveillance, and Transport Canada has put speed restrictions on large vessels travelling through the western part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

And there are the beginnings of significant, controversial changes to the way crab harvesters fish. The Coast Guard attempted to break ice in April so that fishermen could set their traps early, before whales arrived (unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and the season started late). DFO closed the fishery in areas where right whales were sighted, creating more tension between the needs of harvesters and the future of the right whale. Several harvesters have submitted proposals to DFO to test ropeless crab traps, but it would take years to shift the industry.

Hope keeps us focused during a crisis. But it can also foster denial. What use is recycling a fraction of our waste when the world is choked in plastic? Why avoid idling our cars when fossil-fuel emissions globally continue to climb? Why risk life and limb to save a single member of a single species, when by some estimates, dozens of species, most of which we haven’t even discovered, go extinct every day? The work that Joe did, and that Greene and Anthony continue to do, is immediate and essential if the right whale is to be saved, but the right whale’s plight is one among thousands.

If the whales’ numbers become healthy enough to reproduce, we’ll have succeeded in buying them time. It’s unlikely that they’ll thrive in our lifetime without constant intervention from the same species that brought them nearly to their doom: watching them, moving rope, intentionally getting out of their way. Even the best-case scenario right now is simply non-extinction. “I need to emphasize to you,” says Stormy Mayo, “when a population is in a negative trend and numbers are very low, it’s very hard to do a decent job imagining they come back.”

Our impact on the planet is too deep for a conservation story that complete, that happy.

Flight of the Monarchs

“The best of us are cursed with caring, with a bungling and undying determination to protect whatever looks like beauty, even if our vision is blurry.”

– Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones


ast spring, Joe’s brother Tony, and his wife, Cosette, planted milkweed in their Chester, Nova Scotia backyard in an attempt to lure monarch butterflies. “Joe was saving the whales,” says Tony. “We get the milkweed to save the monarchs.” One afternoon last July, Cosette was outside examining the plants when she spotted them for the first time that year: two bright orange butterflies fluttering around and into each other above the garden. Right away, she started taking pictures, and she was so captivated that she ignored the phone when it rang inside. “The house phone hung up and my cell phone starting ringing, and I thought, I better go get it.” She had one hand holding her phone and the other holding her camera, taking pictures of the butterflies, when she learned about Joe.

“In Mexico, monarchs are a sign of the dead,” Tony tells me at his kitchen island in Chester the following March. He explains how when the fall chill creeps into Canada, monarchs begin their long journey south to the mountains in central Mexico. An Aztec myth says the butterflies, which arrive in vast orange clouds each year around the Day of the Dead, are the spirits of dead loved ones.

About a month after Joe died, Cosette and Tony noticed a bright caterpillar crawling on the wood below their deck. They checked on it day after day, as the wriggling creature transformed into a bright green chrysalis. On the morning of August 25, Cosette went to check on it, and found the butterfly’s brilliant orange wings shining through the casing, which was now completely translucent, ready to hatch. She had to run errands, so Tony set himself up on the ground outside next to the butterfly, his phone ready to videotape. He waited there for seven hours until the monarch finally broke free.

‌* A previous version of this story stated that Philip Hamilton and Moira Brown had found the group of right whales. We apologize for the error.


Words  –  Chelsea Murray
Chelsea Murray is a journalist, editor, and co-founder of The Deep. She’s written for The WalrusHazlittReader’s Digest, and This Magazine, among others.

Illustrations  –  Aziza Asat‏
Aziza Asat is a Halifax-based illustrator, currently pursuing studies in architecture.

Edited by Matthew Halliday

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