By Maxwell Hauptman
CASTINE — Calvin is a North Atlantic right whale whose mother, Delilah, died from a ship strike in Canada’s Bay of Fundy in 1992.
Researchers, who named the female calf after the spunky Calvin and Hobbes comic strip character, subsequently have followed the baby whale that not only survived on its own but bore several calves.
For almost 15 years, multiple generations of the Adams School’s seventh- and eighth-graders have been on a mission to educate others about Calvin and the highly endangered right whales that have dwindled to as few as 400.
Led by their science teacher, Bill McWeeny, the middle-schoolers have presented at conferences, spoken with scientists and gone whale watching themselves. Now, the “Calvineers” as they are known, are the subject of an ongoing documentary by Southwest Harbor filmmaker Thom Willey.
“My friend mentioned that her daughter had gone through this program at the school called the Calvineers,” Willey related this week. “They were having a fundraiser for a trip to Halifax, and I saw Bill walking across the street with this big pot of spaghetti. We started talking and I knew this would be a great story.”
In 2017, the filmmaker accompanied McWeeny and students to the 22nd Biennial Marine Mammal Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They also attended the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.
“The great thing is that through Bill and the Calvineers, I’ve been able to actually meet these scientists, and then help the Calvineers with their mission,” Willey continued, “which is to spread the word about how vulnerable these whales are and to educate people about it.”
McWeeny’s relationship with Calvin goes back a long way. A lifelong educator, McWeeny has volunteered as a field researcher with the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Project since 1983. Twenty years later, McWeeny shared his knowledge of Calvin with a group of students who had formed a club to help animals.
“They were helping pet shelters, things like that,” McWeeny said. “I was working with the right whale project and said to them one day, ‘Do you want to work with a really big animal that needs some help?’ And they all jumped on board and it went from there.”
In 2005, the first group of Calvineers made a presentation before 300 scientists at the Consortium’s annual meeting. Since then, other generations have continued to study Calvin and learn about the dangers that the North Atlantic right whales face. Through all of this, McWeeny has yet to actually see Calvin himself.
“The big thing we’re trying to do is get Bill to see Calvin,” Willey said. “After the thousands of hours he has put in, we really want to catch him on film seeing Calvin for the first time.”
This year’s Calvineers meet once a week with McWeeny as an extracurricular activity. They learn about right whales, pick a project to work on and present it at various conferences and science events. Their current work focuses on devising breakable ropes for use in fishing. One of the greatest threats to right whales is entanglement in fishing gear. The high-strength ropes can hold as much as 4,000 pounds without breaking.
The Calvineers are working to develop rope featuring lesser-strength sections, giving whales a greater chance to break free of the line shackling them.
McWeeny says some of his students have a keen interest in marine biology while others are seeking to help and contribute to a worthy cause.
“We go to Lubec to the right whale research station run by the New England Aquarium,” the teacher said. “And, then we go to the Right Whale Festival at the aquarium in May. We get to go all over.”
For the Calvineers, the program offers a hands-on experience to learn about right whales, educate the public and participate in the initiative to save the species.
“I came to the school this year, and I had heard about the Calvineers and what they do, and I thought it sounded cool so I signed up to do it,” seventh-grader Max Egas said. “And it’s been super awesome so far.”
Hazel Sheahan’s older sister inspired her to get involved.
“She got really, really into it and wants to do something with marine biology,” the seventh-grader said. “And she would always tell me how interesting it was and how much she learned and how much fun she had, so I really wanted to do that.”
Willey, while making his documentary, also has helped the Calvineers to produce their own video blogs.
“The more and more I was working with these kids, the more I thought it would be great to involve them,” Willey said. “So I’ve been teaching them a little about filmmaking and some of that process. And what’s great is that they get to operate the camera and help with the lights and they really enjoy that.”
The first Calvineers graduated over a decade ago, and some have gone on to become the very marine scientists who mentor the kids in the program.
“The alumni from this program have done some pretty amazing things,” McWeeny said. “One of them is working right now as an educator at the New England Aquarium. Another is getting her doctorate studying bottlenose dolphins in Australia. One even wrote a play about right whales. So a lot of the students have gone into the sciences, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they got to rub shoulders with scientists at a young age.”
Next December, the Calvineers are aiming to travel to Spain and Willey hopes to go with them.
“I have one student I interviewed last year. And I’ll interview them again this year. And I think this project will go on longer and I’ll interview them next year when they’re in high school,” the filmmaker said. “So there will be this physical and intellectual change that you’ll see on camera. And when they actually see a whale — you can see it in their faces, it’s eyes of wonderment.”