Last week I attended a special screening at Waters Edge Cinema in Provincetown of a new short documentary titled Spinnaker, directed by Nadine Licostie. Thirteen minutes in length, Spinnaker tells the story of (and is named after) a female humpback whale, whose entire lifespan was tracked by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, in order to gather data about the whale’s everyday activities and behaviors, as well as to understand more deeply the routines and changes in Spinnaker’s marine environment. The free screening was co-hosted by the Center for Coastal Studies and the Provincetown Film Society, and on a sunny midsummer afternoon, it was quite well-attended, followed by a panel discussion with the director and interviewees from the film. The cinema will also continue screening Spinnaker throughout the month of August.
Over the course of her 11-year lifetime, Spinnaker’s health and life were threatened when she became entangled on four separate occasions in various kinds of netting, rope, and fishing gear that were aquatically submerged or abandoned by humans working in the marine industries. The most damaging instance of entanglement left Spinnaker dragging fifty lobster traps behind her during her journeys through the Gulf of Maine. The weight of the ropes and lobster traps gradually wore through the exterior of the 1,300-pound mammal and split her skull into two pieces. Her carcass was found on the shore of Acadia National Park on the coast of northern Maine in 2015. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, which had led marine missions to disentangle Spinnaker on the first three occasions, preserved the whale’s fully articulated skeleton, with the fishing gear that killed her still intact. Her remains are now suspended from the ceiling of the recently renovated Center for Coastal Studies in a permanent exhibition there, in hopes that her suffering and death will draw attention to the growing problem of marine entanglement faced by Spinnaker’s increasingly endangered species.
Licostie’s documentary features both footage from marine research expeditions and interviews with Center for Coastal Studies staff members who worked on Spinnaker’s case. One of those staff members, Stormy Mayo, an expert on right whales in the north Atlantic, comments in the film that Spinnaker’s skeleton on display is like a metaphor for the current crisis that’s plaguing our oceans, and during the Q&A after the screening, he said that he thinks the problem will continue to escalate in future years. With tears streaming down my face by the end of the film, I felt like the blunt truth of the situation was too stark even to be a metaphor. It’s simply the terrible reality of what human beings have so irresponsibly done to our oceans and to our shared planet and its wildlife in the name of commerce.
Because none of the scientists interviewed in this short documentary openly addressed the deeper underlying cultural issues, I’ll say it myself here: the cause of Spinnaker’s suffering and death is the greed and selfishness of capitalism, in a society that no longer has the capacity to grasp its own lack of compassion or any mechanism of clarity to control its own cruelty and excesses. It made sense that I watched this short documentary in Provincetown, a place that I love almost more than any other place on earth. Since I first visited Provincetown on my 21st birthday nearly 25 years ago now, the cost of a room for one night at a guesthouse there has skyrocketed from $35 to over $350, and the price of an ordinary dinner at a nice restaurant has spiked from $20 to over $100. In a town that makes its living from the tourism industry (accommodations, hospitality, and restaurant dining), that level of greed is a direct reflection of how out-of-hand the looming environmental catastrophe has become. It’s also a reflection of the wider global financial catastrophe; soon, only the wealthiest people on the planet will be able to afford to enjoy places like Provincetown.
Later in the evening after the film screening, I stopped by a row of cottages on the beach to take a photograph of a beautiful sunset over the harbor, and the man who owns a general store across the street told me that I couldn’t because the beach is private property. As someone who’s never owned property and probably never will, I walked away politely without saying what I should have said right back to him: our world and every natural place in it belongs to everybody.