After more 30 years on Harbor Loop, the Whale Center of New England has closed its doors for good.
The center announced its closing Thursday, nearly a year after its founder and longtime director Mason Weinrich was stricken with an illness that has kept him from returning to the helm.
It's a decision that interim director Dale Brown, who joined the center last March, said took a long time to make.
The center, she said, faced financial troubles and couldn't hire the staff necessary to maintain the programs that Weinrich had run.
The center's board of directors are looking for another organization to safeguard and continue its three decades of research, she said.
"It may have been stretched too thin to begin with," Brown said.
The center was closed for the season through February and hasn't reopened. But one of the center's partners, Capt. Bill and Son's Whale Watch, is going to try to keep the center's physical location open, and continue the center's mission as best it can.
"We have to explore ways to keep the exhibit hall open," said Marc Cunningham, of Capt. Bill and Sons.
Capt. Bill and Sons, he said, has worked with the whale center since 1979. Naturalists from the Whale Center and student interns that worked at the center in the spring, summer and fall, narrated the whale watches with Cunningham's company and conducted research on the vessels.
Cunningham said Capt. Bill's will continue that tradition, and keep working with Weinrich. He said he hopes that the center can stay open, and will work to save it in any way the company can.
"It's amazing what the Whale Center has done over these years," said Brown.
But, she said, after Weinrich left, the center's board realized they'd need to hire another full-time scientist to continue his work. To continue with writing, and with grant funding, she said, the center needed to hire someone with Weinrich's stature. With him out of the picture, she added, the center couldn't keep up with what it used to do.
The Whale Center catalogued and photographed mainly humpback and right whales. Brown said that, on the whale watch boats, the center's naturalists assembled a database of whales and their behaviors, and could identify whales by a "fluke print." That manifested itself through the charismatic Weinrich, who would regularly point out whales to awed passengers by their center-given names.
By the late fall, Brown said, the center was looking for someone to partner with and keep its operations in Gloucester. But, at the start of this year, she added, it didn't look like the center could survive as a stand-alone research organization.
Brown said the center's greatest concern is for the 30 years worth of data it has assembled. She said that, as the nonprofit looks to dissolve in the coming months, it will need to find a home for the accumulated research.
"There are things that will live on through this," she said.
City Community Development Director Sarah Garcia said the closing surprised her. She said the whale center, like the first seafood testing lab at Hodgkin's Cove, is a tough loss for the community.
"It's always hard to lose superstars like Mason Weinrich (and the whale center)," she said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.