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A whale of a life

couple captivated by nature's giants

couple captivated by nature's giants

February 20, 2005|by RICHARD BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, PA.

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

The whale swam up to the boat, rolled on its side and looked her in the eye. She was hooked.

"I saw my reflection in her eye and it was the most moving experience I ever had," Donna Speicher said. "I fell in love."

Speicher and her husband, Artie Speicher, Mercersburg's borough manager, have for the last decade taken up the plight of the North Atlantic right whale not only as a hobby, but an avocation.

The couple was on vacation in Nova Scotia in the summer of 1994 when they went out on a whale-watching cruise and saw the right whale that snuggled up to Donna.

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They have returned to Nova Scotia year after year since.

Sometimes they take commercial boats, sometimes a chartered boat just for themselves and sometimes they charter a plane to get good aerial shots of whales.

They adopted the right whale because of its endangered species status created by overhunting, entanglements in commercial fishing lines and collisions with ships.

Right whales, the world's third largest at more then 50 tons, once swam in untold numbers, but they were given the name by whalers because they were the easiest, hence "right," whale to kill, Artie Speicher said.

"It has the most blubber for its size than any whale, the most girth for its length, about a foot per ton. It floats when it is killed," he said. "They don't swim away from boats."

Their most identifiable features are callosities, or whale lice, which form a different pattern on the head of each individual. They also have distinctive "V"-shaped blows when they surface for air.

The Speichers have become so adept at spotting whales that they can single out individuals.

Right whales are found from the southern United States north to the Canadian Maritimes and the Bay of Fundy, Artie Speicher said.

Only a handful were alive at the turn of the 20th century, Donna Speicher said. They became a protected species in 1935. An international agreement among whale-hunting nations was signed and hunting them was banned, she said.

Scientists estimate between 300 and 350 exist today.

"Man is still their natural enemy," Donna Speicher said. Entanglement in commercial fishing lines and collisions with ships continue to take their toll, she said.

According to National Geographic, four right whales have been found dead along the Eastern Seaboard since November. Donna Speicher said one female named Bob was among the dead whales. Her body was found off Nantucket, Mass. She was renowned among researchers for having given birth to at least six calves, the most ever recorded for a right whale, the magazine said in an Internet article.

Donna Speicher's voice drops when she speaks of the four dead whales.

"We just lost four females," she said.

"You can't put whales in captivity like you can animals and breed them," her husband said.

"Right whales may go extinct in front of our eyes," Donna Speicher said.

"They have trouble maintaining their population," her husband said.

In addition to sighting and reporting whales on their annual whale-watching jaunts to Nova Scotia, the Speichers report their official sightings through a right whale sighting hot line.

They also promote whale adoption programs.

Donna Speicher, an owner of the McKinstry House Restaurant on the square in Mercersburg, is not bashful about pestering customers to get involved in the adoption program.

"I follow people around with brochures and I give out books to kids and adults," she said. "You can pick out the whale you want to be identified with. It only costs $35."

The restaurant is decorated with framed photos of whales the couple has taken along with a large stained-glass piece showing a whale and her calf done by area artist John Baker.

The Speichers have been involved with whales in Nova Scotia for so many years that they have made friends with Canadian researchers and owners of commercial whale-watching boats.

They will return to Nova Scotia on Aug. 20 for a three-week stay.

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