When the Whale Center of New England closed its doors in March, Mark Cunningham of Capt. Bill and Sons Whale Watch and other Whale Center members didn't take the move lying down.
Four months later, after the center's membership and companies like Capt. Bill and Sons put their energy and resources into the faltering nonprofit, they have opened the doors again.
They new directors staffed the exhibit halls and put naturalists back on Capt. Bill's boats, continuing 30 years worth of research started by Whale Center founder Mason Weinrich. And while the center faces the same challenges that almost sunk it in the spring, those at the helm say they're going to fight to continue its work.
"I don't like losing," said Fran Aliberte, member of the center's board. "It's a great mission and a good thing.
"One thing about people who are into whales," Aliberte said, "they're as avid as the most avid baseball fan. These people have unbelievable dedication to whales, whale research and education."
Seven members, including Aliberte, stepped forward to serve as the Whale Center's new board April after they heard it was on its way toward dissolving. They came out of what new board president Cliff Merchant described as a burst of support for the center from its members and the whale watching and whale research community.
"As members learned about it (the center's closing), there was a groundswell of (people) wanting to do something," Merchant said.
That was the case for Merchant and five of the board's new members. Aliberte served on the previous board, and said he wanted to stay on and keep the center alive.
The others, Merchant said, are members who didn't think twice about stepping up. Most of them are from Gloucester, he said. They took over after they were elected by the former board on May 26. The former board stepped back after that.
The Whale Center reopened in June, but its hours are still patchwork and the center is running on volunteers, Merchant said.
The naturalists, which were paid directly by Capt. Bill's and Boston Harbor Cruises, the Boston company that works with the Whale Center, have come back under the Whale Center's banner. But, the center's intern program has shrunk along with its staff. The center also sold it' research vessel, the Mysticete, after it closed. Research, said Merchant will start up again where Weinrich started, but will be carried out on the whale watch boats.
"We're going back to our roots," Merchant said.
The center announced it was closing on March 23 after spending almost a year without founding director Weinrich, who had been on medical leave and was described by Aliberte and others as "the heart and soul of center."
The center, he said, found taking up his research daunting without Weinrich — whose departure also came at a time when the center's grant funding had started to dry up.
"All of a sudden there's a vacuum you have to fill," Aliberte said, and until the surge in support, that vacuum was daunting.
Filling it will still take time.
Merchant said the center is focusing on the keeping the exhibit hall open and naturalists on the whale watches. He said they've hired back two staff members as well. Once those programs stabilize, he said, the center will look for a chief scientist to take over Weinrich's role. The center's interim director, Dale Brown, left when the center closed.
The center's funding picture hasn't changed for the new board either.
"Who knows what the Whale Center will be like in a year?" said Laurie Howes. "We do want to continue scientific research, but we want to expand our education program and reach out into the local community."
Howes is the center's program coordinator, and maintains the 30-year database of photographs and behavioral data the Whale Center has compiled on humpback whales. While the facility is continuing that research, she said, it's had to strip down in other places; it's no longer capable of responding to marine strandings, for example, and leaves that to the New England Aquarium in Boston.
Howes said that, despite the fluctuating schedule, the center is open usually in the afternoons and occasionally on mornings Monday through Friday.
Cunningham, who captains one of the Capt. Bill's Whale Watch boats, says he's glad the center's back.
"It's great for us, we've worked with the center for over 30 years," Cunningham said, "and we hope to continue for many years to come."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.