On Friday, BBC Radio 5 dropped a truly epic series – “The Song of the Right Whale,” a longform journalism project that Marbleheader and British ex-pat Rhod Sharp produced, wrote and reported on over the last two years.
The six-hour series spans a half-dozen episodes as Sharp comprehensively covers the plight of the North Atlantic Right Whale, conflicting interests swirling around the 70-ton animal and the problem-solving efforts to save them. The mammal sits in the company of the world’s most endangered large whale species – with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating that fewer than 350 remain.
Sharp learned about the severity of the right whale’s endangerment upon reading Dr. Michael Moore’s piece about the dangers of entanglement in fundraising material from the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute.
“I decided to get in touch with him, and at our first meeting I realized there is much more going on here than pure science,” Sharp told the Marblehead News. “Dr. Moore opened my eyes to the complexity of trying to preserve a rapidly-declining species and change the behavior of a whole industry, and I knew then that I would have to talk to a lot of people.”
He pitched the series to BBC Radio as “a cast of characters,” he said.
“So many different people – scientists, lobstermen, activists, regulators and politicians – all of whom have a stake in the survival of the North Atlantic Right Whale,” he said. “Even though the right whale is the least musical of all whales, it was a sort of song with many different verses.”
For those who may not know, Sharp hosted BBC Radio 5 Live’s “Up All Night” for more than a quarter century until his retirement in 2020. The show – which made him a BBC Radio institution – aired through the night in the United Kingdom, but Sharp presented the show from Marblehead – in the attic of his Franklin Street home for more than 15 years. In some ways, “The Song of the Right Whale” returned Sharp to his shoe-leather reporting days as a former newspaper man.
Sharp’s interviews take him all over New England, capturing the conflicting interest, solutions and tensions among fishermen, scientists, activist, veterinarians and politicians. Sharp and his producer, Rudy Noriega of Manchester, United Kingdom, spent two years trading sound files to weave the story together.
The series includes interviews with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey and Congressman Seth Moulton, who’ve filed legislation to help to keep the whale alive. Sharp sits down with lobstermen whom some blame for the whale deaths. He talks with scientists whom he reports believe “the time for compromise has passed,” and that action is urgently needed.
“The arguments are bitter, confrontational and threaten to split communities – and may even destroy a traditional industry and a way of life,” Sharp opens the series’ inaugural episode, “Right Whale, Wrong Ocean.” “Nobody wants to kill them – quite the opposite. In fact, scientists, fishermen and politicians are unanimous in their will to save the species.”
While there may be a united front, Sharp said the population of the right whale continues to plummet, in part, because folks disagree on the best approach to save them. He tells listeners the North Atlantic right whale population stands at the lowest in almost two decades.
“The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium says the population declined about 30 percent in the past decade,” Sharp reports. “Right now there are an estimated 336 of the oceanic animals, down from nearly 520 in 2011.”
Late 19th century whalers brought the right whale to the cusp of extinction, and they’ve never been able to fully recover.
NOAA reports entanglement in lobster traps, fishing nets and vessel strikes constitute the leading causes of right whale mortality. Recent studies show increasing noise levels from human activities may be causing a stressful amount of sensory overload.
The right whale name may sound familiar to many because their endangered status make them newsworthy, and they are annually sighted off North Shore and Cape Cod waters. Right whales are baleen whales, eating tiny crustaceans by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their sieve-like baleen plates, according to the NOAA.
“Over the course of the 2022 season, at least 73 percent of the known right whale population was documented in Massachusetts state waters and adjacent federal waters, including 10 of the 15 calves born in 2022,” the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisher’s Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) aerial surveillance team reported. “The CCS team is continuing to analyze photos from the season and the number of whales observed is likely to increase.”
Sharp tapped fellow Marblehead resident Mason Daring, an award-wining composer, to produce the musical theme for the series.
From listening to “The Song of the Right Whale,” Sharp hopes people gain “more of an appreciation from the land side of the risks, both physical and financial that lobster fishing families run to get a New England favorite to the table.”
But also, he adds: “A renewed sense of awe at this creature so few of us will ever be lucky enough to see, a great wonder of the deep.”