When talking about whales and culture, I typically think of the role these marine mammals play in island societies, a la Whale Rider and the Maori of New Zealand. But recent research on whales and dolphins show that whales can be the same species, genetically similar, and even occupy the same habitat yet individual pods behave and interact with each other very differently. It is almost as if within species of whales there are different cultures. While it has been known for decades that whales have different vocalization patterns, the type of generational research performed in labs on smaller animals like primates and birds is just starting to happen for these larger marine animals and indications of “personhood” behaviors are beginning to emerge. Scientists have shown that certain primates are self aware, have feelings, and high-level cognitive powers and according to new research, whales and dolphins do too.
Some more cute marine mammals entered the world recently. Over at SeaWorld San Diego, staffers used sex selection techniques to keep an optimal balance between male and female Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and brought about the birth of a brand new female calf. Three California sea lions at the Belfast Zoo became mothers after nearly a year-long gestation period. As part of a European breeding program, the Belfast Zoo has seen the birth of 10 sea lions in the last four years. Ah, breeding programs are my favorite -- where science and cuteness meet.
A recent study conducted at the University of Hawaii provides “sound” evidence that sonar induces temporary deafness in bottlenose dolphins. Many have long blamed man-made noise -- mainly sonar used by the navy -- for mass strandings of whale and dolphin species. Although this study does not provide concrete proof that submarine and warship sonar activity is causing strandings, it does prove definitively that sonar activity can affect cetaceans if they are close enough to the source and exposed over a prolonged period of time. Whales and dolphins use sound for navigation and temporary deafness can leave them disoriented. They are traveling over very large distances and cannot afford to lose their sense of direction. If they were to accidentally swim into a shallow area or be washed ashore, they could rapidly become dehydrated and die.
As if the Somali pirates story wasn't dramatic and compelling enough, feisty marine mammals have added a new twist. According to China Radio, thousands of dolphins blocked the suspected Somali pirate ships when they were trying to attack Chinese merchant ships passing the Gulf of Aden. When the defiant dolphins leapt out of water between the two parties, the alleged pirate ships stopped and then turned away. Or, as the Chinese media release states: "The pirates could only lament their littleness before the vast number of dolphins." All right, that's it. Someone has GOT to make this into a movie.
Another celebratory first from Hawaii: at the first international conference on protected areas for marine mammals, biologists working in Bangladesh reported that they found a thriving population of 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins, a mother lode considering that marine mammal experts had feared the species was vulnerable to extinction. And although the dolphins are doing much better than predicted, scientists say they still need to be protected from the rising threat of fishing net entanglement (i.e.,bycatch) and global warming, which will likely raise sea levels and change the river flows, shrinking the species’ range. Other river dolphin and porpoise species have not fared so well. (Though it's important to note that Irrawaddy dolphins aren't true river dolphins but oceanic dolphins that live in brackish water.) In 2007, the baiji, a river dolphin in China's Yangtze River was pronounced extinct as a result of the enormous amount of human activity in the area. And who could forget the adorable and critically endangered vaquita marina, a porpoise in the Gulf of California, whose remaining 150-member population is also threatened by fishing nets.
This week in ocean news, ...A 72 million-year-old sea turtle fossil -- the oldest on record -- was discovered in Mexico. ...A council plans to vote in June on protecting the sea floor from Florida to North Carolina from bottom trawls, bottom longlines and other destructive fishing gear. The 23,000 square miles is thought to encompass the largest deepwater reef system in the world. ...Almost 200 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins were stranded on a beach in Tasmania, the fourth beaching incident there in recent months. ...The fisher poets (no relation to yours truly) had their annual gathering in Oregon. ...Scientists discovered a carnivorous sea squirt that looks like a desk lamp. ...As the OCYC notes, David de Rothschild is leading a project to build a 60-foot catamaran out of plastic bottles, called Plastiki, which he will sail from California to Australia. ...A Bengal tiger cub and a dolphin made friends. The next Disney Pixar movie, anyone?
If humans are clumsy and slow in the water, at least we're good at stealing performance-enhancing ideas from other animals. In this case, from dolphins, who can swim up to 33 miles per hour. Georgia engineer Ted Ciamillo has invented the Lunocet, a 2.5-pound monofin made of carbon fiber and fiberglass. Its shape and angle are precisely modeled on a dolphin's tail -- and it's making Michael Phelps look like a sea slug. Swimmers have already hit about eight miles per hour wearing the fin, which is twice as fast as Phelps at a sprint. Marine biologist Frank Fish (yes, you read that right) provided Ciamillo with data from CAT scans of dolphins' tails that he used to design his fins. And as you could probably guess, the Lunocet ain't cheap: they go for about $1,800 each.
Recall the group of 16 bottlenose dolphins that curiously ended up in several New Jersey rivers this summer, and took up residency there? Now that the dolphins have apparently left the Garden State (three died, the others either went back out to sea or are trapped under frozen rivers), folks on all sides of the issue are debating whether NOAA did the right thing in not rescuing the creatures.
A new report shows that the southern population of endangered killer whales in the Pacific Northwest are the most The salmon swim in Pacific near-shore waters polluted by agriculture, industry, and regular ol' urban runoff.
On the heels of President Bush's creation of three vast marine national monuments in the Pacific comes some not-so-great news about the outgoing president's stewardship of the oceans. In a new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (my personal favorite of the federal agencies for its malfeasance-ferreting-out ways) has found that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to protect several marine mammal species, even though it's required by law. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the federal government is required to reduce the number of marine mammals that are incidentally killed by commercial fishing activities. For example, the North Atlantic right whale can be caught in lobster trap lines; pilot whales can be trapped in longline gear used to catch tuna; and dolphins and porpoises can be ensnared in nets set to catch cod and salmon. The GAO found that the National Marine Fisheries Service has been unable to establish plans to protect 14 of the 30 marine mammals required by law due to a lack of funding and insufficient data.