They named the whale Windy.
“Windy was a young humpback whale taken in the prime of her life,” read the caption on a March 3 post in the Facebook group Protect our Coast NJ showing the diseased humpback whale on the beach near Seaside Park.
“Her gravesite is dug — this will be her final resting place.”
The caption ended with five emojis: prayer hands, crying face, whale, blue heart, another prayer hands.
Before long, it had been shared 1.7K times, with 420 comments. Many traced the whale’s death, and those of nearly two dozen others along the coast of New York and New Jersey since early December 2022, to work being done in advance of several large-scale wind turbine farms off the Jersey coast. It is a connection scientists and government agencies have dismissed.
Even as necropsies find evidence of ship strikes in nearly half of the whales, which have been dying in elevated numbers since 2016, the drumbeat of scapegoating wind energy has intensified.
The debate has split, perhaps predictably, along political lines, frustrating those who say they really are just worried about the whales and those who have other concerns about the full impact of wind turbines.
‘Amateur scare tactic’
“When do we March?” said one poster, whose Facebook bio is “SURVIVOR, RESPECTFUL, DEDICATED, PERSISTENT, PATRIOT.” “I’m so mad I could spit.”
Election conspiracy theories soon followed, with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy a frequent target of derision.
They quoted the Book of Jonah, pondered whether to march on Trenton, packed local municipal meetings.
One frequent Facebook poster argued, falsely, that Murphy had a share in a company involved with wind energy called JECS Offshore, a name similar to one that he formed to buy his property in Italy. (JECS are the first initials of his children’s names.)
“Phil has no interest in stopping the project because he’s set to make $$$$, always follow the money,” wrote one poster.
The accusation is baseless.
“There is no connection between JECS Ltd. and JECS Offshore Services, and any claim otherwise is absolutely false,” said Alexandra Altman, Murphy’s deputy communications director, in an email.
“Conflating two companies with similar names is another amateur scare tactic being used by groups whose sole focus is to stall the progress of New Jersey’s clean energy future.”
On Facebook, Brett Whiting, offshore operations director at JECS Global Offshore Wind, said, “I’ve been called a little bugger in my time, but this is the first time I’ve been named and shamed in a conspiracy involving a United States governor and a leading global energy supplier!”
‘Consuming my life’
Posters reflected personally on every whale death.
“You just gave me anxiety …. like everything you said I was a whale in the water experiencing it,” said one poster.
“This is really bad,” said another. “How long before we start seeing dead children washing up on the beach?”
At least 178 humpback whales have died from Maine to Florida since 2016, with necropsies completed on half. About 40% bear evidence of being struck by a vessel or entangled in fishing gear, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Marine Fisheries Service, which designated the time period as an unusual mortality event predating offshore wind-energy activity.
For Trisha DeVoe, an Ocean County, N.J., resident who works for a whale-watching company in the summer who posted the photo of the whale they call Windy, that marine mammal death was just the latest in a string of gut-wrenching strandings that are, frankly, taking over her life.
She became emotional when asked how the effort was affecting her.
“I‘m holding back the tears because that question made me cry,” she said in an interview. “I’ve been basically so consumed on trying to learn more and raise awareness. Literally my son just said to me the whales better stop dying because it’s consuming my life and [that of] many others. It’s very, very personal.”
‘A very local phenomenon’
The wind companies have pushed back, citing conclusions by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the Marine Mammal Commission, and the NOAA that preparation for building the turbines, including sonar mapping activities, is not to blame for whale deaths.
Atlantic Shores holds one lease to build a wind farm off Atlantic City whose turbines will be visible, at least on the clearest of days, from the lease area, 183,000 acres between Atlantic City and Barnegat Light. Phase one will be 200 turbines.
“There’s not a shred of evidence connecting ocean wind farms or surveying activities to the harming of whales,” said CEO Joris Veldhoven in an interview.
“We’re mapping the seafloor,” he said. “We’re not installing turbines. We’re not installing cables. We’re very concerned about how the opposition is trying to draw a causal relation with the wave of whale beachings and deaths.”
He said that the discourse seems to be “very much a local phenomenon” and that there is “only a limited window for all citizens of the U.S. and this world to do something about climate change.”
‘All my Trumper friends’
The discourse has taken on a life of its own, every dead whale intensifying the debate. U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Republican who represents Atlantic and Cape May Counties, along with about 30 local mayors have called for a moratorium on wind energy.
Cape May County will hold a hearing Wednesday. Van Drew is calling witnesses at the Wildwood Convention Center on Thursday for a hearing, titled An Examination Into Offshore Wind Industrialization. Two other Republican congressmen will be there.
“That side is winning the information war,” said Joseph Reynolds, of the Save Coastal Wildlife organization, who wrote a piece called “Stop lying about whale deaths.”
“They’re so wrapped up in all this propaganda,” he said. “They have all these people on blogs and Facebook and social media and friends in the media. As soon as there’s a dead whale, they’re down there.”
Reynolds wants the emphasis to shift to slowing down marine traffic to avoid injuries the dead whales are showing evidence of, though many on Facebook are sure those injuries occurred after whales were disoriented by sonar mapping related to the turbines.
On a New Jersey Reddit, a poster asked earlier this month: “Why are all my Trumper friends suddenly ‘Save The Whales’ when they’ve never cared about the environment before?” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson have taken up the cause.
The Heartland Institute, a national libertarian think tank that has been closely aligned with fossil-fuel groups, recently filed comments with the BOEM against an offshore wind project in Virginia “to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
There is near-certainty among the faithful.
“Please … we all know it’s the wind farm surveys. Stop the killing,” said one poster on the Facebook page of the Brigantine, N.J.-based Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which itself has been a target of conspiracy theories after its necropsies turned up evidence of ship strikes.
Elected officials busy with culture-war and other Republican talking points like Ocean City School Board member Robin Shaffer, who is advocating for the district to denounce state health and sex-education standards, are active in the whale-wind turbine movement.
“Is there a lawyer out there?” Shaffer posted. “Is it possible that Orsted and/or Governor Murphy could be brought up on charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for environmental crimes?”
Former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael J. Donohue, a prominent Republican operative in Cape May County, was named special counsel to the county on windmill issues. On Facebook, he’s compared the assertion that whale deaths are not tied to wind energy to “The virus did not leak from a Chinese lab” and “If you get the vax, you can’t get the virus or spread it.”
Meanwhile, Trisha Devoe says they weren’t even thinking about the wind turbines when they named the dead whale Windy. “It was just … really windy at the time,” she said.
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