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'Whaleman' specializes in specimens

November 22, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

UVILLA, W.Va. -- About the only things "whalemen" like Charlie Potter have in common with storied 19th-century whalers who sailed the seven seas is their blubber- and bone-cutting tools.

Real whalers in wooden ships pursued fast-swimming, deep-diving leviathans. Potter's prey is beached and often rather unpleasantly long dead. Like whalers of old, Potter too wears rain slickers, boots and gloves for obvious reasons when digging into a putrid carcass.

"You just do it because that's your job," he said.

He doesn't wear masks: "They get in the way."

Potter's mode of travel is often a flatbed, car-hauling dump truck, a vehicle that can load and carry a 20-foot dead whale. 

Whalers killed whales for meat and oil. Potter, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, cuts dead whales apart, "piece by piece," for science, a vocation and passion he's pursued since he graduated from Syracuse (N.Y.) University and signed on with the Smithsonian 38 years ago.

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Potter, 59, who lives just outside Shepherdstown, W.Va., in Jefferson County, manages the museum's research collection of marine mammals -- whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and walruses among them. While his office is in the main museum building, he spends much of his time at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., where he keeps specimens from whales he dissects.

He has traveled much of the coastal United States and to many parts of the world, from Africa to Antarctica, chasing down reports of a whale or dolphin washed up on a beach.

His first whale, a humpback, was found on a beach in North Carolina in 1972. By the time Potter got to it, it had mostly decomposed to a skeleton, but there was enough left of it for him to realize that science didn't know that much about humpback whales, or about all whales, for that matter. 

He's been chasing down beached whales ever since. There have been "a couple of thousand" over the decades, he said. "I've done a lot of traveling," he said. "I knew that what we were learning was having an impact on the basic biology of these animals."

Potter is accompanied on-site by small teams of interns and students. They measure, poke, prod and take copious notes. They cut deeply into a dead whale to learn how it died, what it ate, and where and how far it traveled.  

He tells of a recent beaching of a beaked whale cow that was still nursing a calf. It washed up on a Delaware beach.

"It was beautiful, 30 feet long, a gorgeous animal," he said. "Since it was still lactating, we figured its dependent calf had gone off and died somewhere."

When they cut into the whale's stomach, they learned how it died. A small plastic cap from a can of spray lubricant, something that would be found aboard a ship, was lodged in the whale's stomach and prevented normal digestion.

"A careless person or a member of a ship's crew might have thrown the cap overboard instead of putting it in the trash. Because of that, this whale had to die," Potter said. "It's very sad."

The mortality rate among whales at sea is high, Potter said. Some are caught in large commercial fishing nets or become entangled in fishing gear. Others are hit by passing ships, a leading cause of whale fatalities.

"It's a rough world out there for these animals," he said.

Specimens -- some fingertip size, some whole body sections, some bones -- are brought back to Suitland for further study and to add to the collection.

The spine of a blue whale, the world's largest, is so long that it sits on four long shelves. Its skeletal head, 19 feet long, stands upright in a corner, according to photographs.

Potter likens the collection of whale parts in Suitland's hangar-like buildings to a library, where shelves of specimens are akin to books on a shelf.

He often takes specimens with him when he travels for lectures and training. Much of Potter's travel these days is to establish training networks of marine biologists who will continue and expand the work that the Smithsonian biologists have done in the field.

"It's a way to share knowledge. If everyone only has a small bit of information, it's not useful to anyone unless it's shared," he said.

His next trip, in January, is to India to set up a network there.

Potter likes to think he is part of a three-generation legacy in his field, if not by blood, than at least by academic connection, with himself as the first generation.

The second is D. Ann Pabst, who came to his department as an intern and who went on to earn a Ph.D. in marine biology. Today, Pabst is a tenured full professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

The third generation began with Marina A. Piscitelli of Bakerton, W.Va. Potter met her during a visit to her local high school.

"She was a junior. She came up to me and said she wanted to study about whales," he said. "She asked me about college and I told her the best program was the one run by Ann Pabst at the University of North Carolina. Marina is a very promising student there now."

 

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