American photographer Doug Perrine, 60, captured this priceless image of a false killer whale mid-grin off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.
Less commonly known than the killer whale (or orca), the false killer whale is the third largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. Growing to 1,500 pounds and up to 20 feet long, the false killer whale looks like no dolphin you’ve seen before. Its small conical head lacks the “beak” we expect in common dolphins, and its flippers have a distinctive hump along the front edge.
False killer whales were first discovered by their fossils in 1843, and were assumed to be extinct. In fact, the species wasn’t discovered alive until fifteen years after the discovery of their fossils. Like the gregarious-looking fellow captured in the photo, false killer whales are intensely social, forming strong social bonds in groups of ten to twenty that belong to larger groups of up to 40 individuals in Hawaii or as many as 100 elsewhere. False killer whales travel and hunt together in broad bands that can be up to several miles wide, and they even share their food with other group members.
Unfortunately, the false killer whale’s population numbers in Hawaii are nothing to smile at – these social creatures have suffered major decline in the last 25 years. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, aerial surveys showed about 400 false killer whales in 1989. More recent studies suggest the number today is closer to 150. As of November 2012, false killer whales were listed as endangered in Hawaii, due in large part to the creature’s vulnerability to be caught as bycatch by tuna and swordfish fisheries. The false killer whales become hooked or entangled in longlines when they take bait off of longline fishing hooks set for Hawaiian swordfish and tuna, a dangerous mistake that often turns deadly.
The future for false killer whales is in danger, but with education, advocacy, and increased respect and protections for these social and gregarious sea creatures, we can give the false killer whale something to smile about.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick may paint a picture of the sperm whale as a terrifying, ferocious creature that destroys ships and attacks the sailors on them, but modern research shows that sperm whales are compassionate and social creatures, dangerous only to the fish and squid that the giant whale feasts on for dinner, or to the orca whales that prey on sperm whale calves. A heartwarming and unusual recent discovery does even more to distinguish the sperm whale from its deadly reputation, as a group of sperm whales were observed “adopting” a bottlenose dolphin with a spinal malformation.
Behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause discovered this unique phenomenon when they set out to observe sperm whales off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. Upon arriving there, they discovered a whale group of adult sperm whales, several whale calves, and an adult male bottlenose dolphin. Over the next eight days, the pair observed the dolphin with the whales six more times, socializing and even nuzzling and rubbing members of the group. At times, the sperm whales seemed merely to tolerate the dolphin’s affection, while at others, they reciprocated. "It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason," Wilson reports to ScienceNOW. "They were being very sociable."
Think that you could survive in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean? Probably not, but beluga whales have certainly found a way.
The beluga whale, sometimes known as the white whale, is an unusual-looking marine mammal. A typical individual can be 13-20 feet long, and with its white coloring and distinctively lumpy head, the beluga is one of a kind. You can find belugas way up north in the waters of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia.
Beluga whales have many adaptations that allow them to live in extremely cold waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin, which is believed to help them survive under ice. They have round bodies and a thick layer of blubber to keep out the cold.
So what’s with that protruding lump on the beluga’s head? It’s called a melon, and other marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises have it too. It’s an organ with lots of oils and fats that is believed to be important during echolocation. The melon of a beluga whale is unique: by blowing air around its sinuses, a beluga whale can change the shape of its melon, which may be used in specialized under-ice echolocation.
The beluga whale is referred to as a sea canary, because of its high-pitched song. Individuals use squeaks, clucks and whistles to communicate with each other. Belugas are a very social species, and live together in groups called pods. When they move into bays, estuaries, and rivers during the summer they have been known to congregate in the thousands. Pods aren’t permanent though—belugas switch social groups frequently, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to join another group.
Beluga whales are smart and playful, and like to spit water at other whales or their keepers in aquariums. They’re the only whale species that’s commonly kept in aquariums, though captive breeding programs haven’t been successful.
Worldwide, beluga whales are ranked as near threatened by the IUCN. A subpopulation in the Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as critically endangered. They suffer from pollution, especially in the rivers and estuaries they spend their summers in—there have been incidents of cancer in beluga whales linked to pollution in the St. Lawrence River. If we want these unique whales to be around in the future, we have to keep their environment safe and clean.
Exploring the oceans from one of these animals points of view would be an exciting (and eye opening) experience.
So what marine animal would you be if you had the chance to be any creature in the ocean? We posed this question to our Ocean Heroes finalists, and here’s what they had to say. See if you can match their responses to the pictures above (answers at the bottom of this post)!
Michele Hunter – Harbor seal
Hardy Jones – Sperm whale
Kristofor Lofgren – Mako shark
Dave Rauschkolb – Porpoise
Richard Steiner – Polar bear (I like the odds and the challenge they face)
Donald Voss – Humpback whale
Sara Brenes – Tiger Shark
Calvineers – Blue whale
Sam Harris – Tiger Shark
James Hemphill – Hawksbill Sea Turtle (I have always been amazed at all the colors on its shell and how gracefully and peacefully it swims)
Teakahla WhiteCloud – Dolphin
Make sure to vote for your favorite Ocean Heroes, open from now until July 11th. Stay tuned to learn more about our finalists!
Photo Credits (clockwise from top left): Sperm Whale: Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Tiger Shark: Albert Kok, Harbor Seal: NOAA, Hawksbill Turtle: NOAA/Caroline Rogers, Porpoise: NOAA, Tiger Shark: Austin Gallagher, Humpback Whale: NOAA, Dolphin: Oceana/Eduardo Sorenson, Mako Shark: NOAA, Polar bear: NOAA, Blue Whale: NOAA (middle)
The Gulf oil disaster reminds me of that old Donald Rumsfeld chestnut, the one about known-knowns and known-unknowns. With a massive, ongoing gushing oil spill, and an enormous ecosystem at risk, we're in the realm of the "known unknown" – we know that there is a huge amount of oil moving through the Gulf, but no one’s quite sure exactly where it is or where it’s going.
A group of federal agencies, including NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are trying to push us into the "known known" category with teams sent out on what are essentially reconnaissance missions. Two months into the oil disaster, they’re still grappling to understand the impacts on shorelines, turtles, mammals and more.
Last Thursday, for the first time, NOAA allowed a small group of ocean conservation activists to shadow a crew working on discovering the location and severity of subsurface oil. I joined our senior campaign director, Jackie Savitz, along with scientists and campaigners from Ocean Conservancy and the Gulf Restoration Network in a couple of skiffs that tailed the NOAA crew for a few hours on the water just east of Grand Isle, La.
Before we embarked, NOAA restoration specialist Sean Meehan gave us the rundown as we stood on the dock in Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans. A jovial guy, Meehan is an experienced marine researcher, but even he acknowledged the unique difficulty of locating subsurface oil.
Today, senior campaign director Jackie Savitz and I went on the first boat trip for conservation groups to observe NOAA's attempt to understand the scope of the oil spill and how to respond to it. The crew we shadowed was trying to measure oil underneath the Gulf's surface. Along the way, we saw shrimpers turned oil skimmers, reddish oil on the water and sadly, a pod of dolphins including calves swimming and feeding in the oil-polluted waters.
In this video, Jackie summarizes a lot of what we saw. We'll have much more video and photos from the trip soon, so stay tuned. Thanks to NOAA for allowing us to come along and learn about this critical work.
"When you take a wild cetacean (a whale or dolphin) and put it in a tank, its acoustic system is suddenly screwed up. Its sonar reverberates off of the concrete in its tank and, little by little, the animal becomes totally silenced. It’s like a person being blindfolded in a jail cell. The orcas are not used to borders or barriers, and that probably makes them very uncomfortable. Some of them don’t accept captivity and die, but others do and live like they are in prison."
That's Jean-Michael Cousteau reflecting on killer whales in the wake of last week's death of a trainer at Sea World. Cousteau is one of the world's experts on orcas and gives a fascinating, wide-ranging interview to the Santa Barbara Independent about whales and dolphins in the wild and in captivity, including a description of the enormous effort it took to rehabilitate and free Keiko, the orca that starred in "Free Willy." It's well worth a read.