NC Maritime Museum to host second symposium

Humpback whales like this one feeding on menhaden near Cape Lookout in November 2015, will be the one of the topics discussed at the second North Carolina Whales and Whaling Symposium on Friday, April 7, the N.C. Maritime Museum (photo by Keith Rittmaster, N.C. Maritime Museum under NOAA/MFS permit).

It has long been known that many species of whales frequent North Carolina’s coastal waters, but which ones exactly?  

The public will have the opportunity to learn first-hand at the N.C. Maritime Museum’s second North Carolina Whales and Whaling Symposium. 

The symposium will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, April 7. Walk-ins are welcome.  The program is free and open to the public, though participants are encouraged to plan ahead for the event.

This day-long event will include several presentations focusing on whales and whaling practices. 

More than 30 species of whales have been documented in North Carolina’s coastal waters. Medieval whaling, modern industrial whaling and collected specimens from North Carolina and beyond will be discussed.

Participants will learn which species of whales can be found in our coastal waters, how some of these whales were hunted from the shore and the diversity of marine mammal strandings in North Carolina.

This program brings together professionals from a variety of backgrounds including marine biology, conservation, folklore and history to give presentations regarding whales and whaling.  

Historians, biologists, environmentalists and educators will share experiences and knowledge through a series of presentations and displays appropriate for all audiences.  

“We wanted to make sure this symposium blended the cultural and historical aspects of whaling with the cutting-edge scientific research that is going on here,” said N.C. Maritime Museum Curator John Hairr.  

“With our long tradition of whaling and the rich diversity of marine mammals, the North Carolina coast is one of the best places in the world to see and understand how they all interrelate.” 

There will be five speakers covering a wide range of topics.  Speakers include experts with many years of experience dealing with the history, biology, conservation and pedagogy of whales and whaling specifically in North Carolina. 

Each presentation will last approximately 45 minutes, with time left at the end for questions.  

At 10 a.m., N.C. Maritime Museum Natural Science Curator Keith Rittmaster will give an overview of the many species of whales seen in North Carolina waters.

He will discuss the whales most commonly encountered off this coast including bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales, right whales and humpback whales.

Mr. Rittmaster has spent his career studying cetaceans, alive and dead, and preparing and displaying their skeletons. 

He served as a marine mammal observer aboard research vessels in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Cook Inlet, Alaska and the Western North Atlantic Ocean. 

He is a member of the N.C. Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the North Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network. 

He directs a long-term local bottlenose dolphin photo-identification study since 1985 and the N.C. Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program. 

Mr. Rittmaster is a recipient of the 2016 Pelican Awards from the N.C. Coastal Federation.  He was recognized for his dedication to the research and protection of marine mammals.

“I’m continually amazed at the abundance and diversity of whales (and their behaviors) in North Carolina,” said Mr. Rittmaster.  “I look forward to presenting some of what we’re learning about whales in North Carolina along with current conservation issues impacting them.”

At 11 a.m., museum specialist John Ososky of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History heads up the Osteology Laboratory for Vertebrate Zoology where the bones of skeletal specimens are conserved. 

In addition to specimen-related expeditions and researching some of North America’s most endangered species, Mr. Ososky also manages the marine mammal collection at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md. 

One of his current projects involves researching institutional archives to un-earth the history of marine mammal science conservation at the Smithsonian. Mr. Ososky will speak about the work of Smithsonian Curator Frederick W. True. 

A break will be provided at noon for participants to enjoy lunch at any of Beaufort’s local restaurants.

At 1 p.m., N.C. Maritime Museum Associate Curator Benjamin Wunderly reveals the final resting place for the skeletal remains of several whales that were hunted from the shores of North Carolina. 

Mr. Wunderly has spent the past 20 years working with North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  

The focus of his career has been on North Carolina’s coastal ecology, wildlife and marine life and how human actions both historical and modern influence them. 

His lecture covers some of the historic shore based whaling practices that occurred along the Outer Banks, and will highlight several skeletons that were collected from whales harvested on the North Carolina coast. 

“Whale fishing has been a part of North Carolina’s history since at least the 1660s and through the disbanding of the last shore based whaling crew in 1917,” said Mr. Wunderly.

In North Carolina, whalers participated in what came to be known as shore-based whaling.  Instead of going out on large whaling ships for long periods of time to chase down their prey, North Carolina whalers were able to hunt these leviathans right off of the coast in smaller row boats.  

Initially, North Carolina locals harvested the whales that naturally came ashore, but soon began to pursue the whales that came close to the North Carolina shores. 

At 1 p.m., Dr. Vicki Szabo, author of Monstrous Fishes and the Mead Dark Sea, will speak to the long history of observation and use of whales in medieval Europe and the North Atlantic, from the Romans to the Vikings and beyond. 

Dr. Szabo has served as an associate professor of ancient, medieval and environmental history at Western Carolina University since 2001. 

Her current research focuses on interdisciplinary reconstruction of medieval Norse exploitation of marine

mammals through archaeology, history and ancient DNA analysis. 

Funded by a National Science Foundation Arctic Social Sciences grant, Dr. Szabo and a team of collaborators and students conduct research in archives, excavations and labs in Iceland, Greenland, Scotland and Scandinavia.  

“Many North Carolina residents do not realize that our state has over 150 reported marine mammal strandings each year, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and manatees,” stated Dr. Szabo.  

“These events, although sad for the animals, offer an unparalleled opportunity to improve our understanding of the biology of marine mammals that inhabit our local waters.  Marine mammals strand for a variety of reasons, including anthropological causes, disease, and old age. These animals are top predators and may serve as ecosystem sentinels to reflect the health of our marine environment,” she continued.

The final presentation begins at 3 p.m. with Dr. Andy Read, the Stephen A. Toth Professor of Marine Biology at Duke University, and the director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort. 

Mr. Read is one of the world’s leading authorities on marine mammals, sea birds and sea turtles, and has published more than 150 peer-reviewed studies.  

He has conducted field research in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Antarctica. 

Much of his current work focuses on documenting the effects of human activities on marine species, and developing and applying new conservation tools to resolve such conflicts. 

He served on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cetacean Specialist Group and on the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee. 

In 2015, Mr. Read was nominated to serve as chairman of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency that provides oversight for marine mammal policies and programs being carried out by federal regulatory agencies.

Throughout the day visitors will also can visit educational displays about whales and whaling.  

These displays will include the complete skeleton of a dwarf sperm whale, courtesy of Mr. Rittmaster and his volunteers. Many items will be on temporary display for this annual event.  Baleen, teeth, whale oil, and large bones will also be exhibited.

“This program has received a wide range of interest already from local residents to the educational community,” said Mr. Hairr.  “We are fortunate to have the quality of talent available to share their amazing experiences with the participants.” 

Mr. Hairr had nothing but high praise for the number of people the event drew in 2016. 

“Last year, the first symposium drew a capacity crowd. With the interest and curiosity in North Carolina whales, we expect this year to be completely full,” he said.   

The symposium will give participants and the audience a chance to meet, talk and discover various fields of interest and share years of knowledge and expertise.  

For questions, contact the N.C. Maritime Museum Program Registrar Francoise Boardman at 252-728-7317, ext. 31, or via email at

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