How much would you pay to get spit on by a beluga whale? If the answer is $200, then head on over to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and their new Beluga Encounter. The new 90,000 gallon tank has an area where trainers and participants can walk in the water and allow the whales to swim right up to them. Participants can rub the whales’ skin, scratch their tongues, listen to the whales’ songs, and, yes, get spit on as the beluga whales demonstrate how they hunt for fish. The program is safe for the beluga whales, who are around human trainers every day anyway. Ken Ramirez, the aquarium’s senior vice president for animal collections and training says, “the animals enjoy it, and the people enjoy it.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote about research that suggests whales and dolphins have cultures the same way humans do. A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine points to similarities in the brains of social animals -- whales, great apes, and yes, humans -- that might explain the ability to work within social structures. Combining lab research with fieldwork and medical studies, scientists have discovered that the presence of von Economo neurons signifies ability to successfully communicate with others. Elephants and whales, like humans, operate in elaborate societies, quickly adapting to changing situations, such as rescuing an abandoned calf. The absence or destruction of these neurons, as in the case with certain neurological diseases, leads to a break down in social skills and adaptability.
Pinky isn’t the only albino marine mammal to make the news. Migaloo, an all white humpback whale whose Aboriginal name means white man, has recently been sighted off the eastern Australian coast. First spotted in 1991, Migaloo, like other humpback whales, migrates each year to warm tropical waters in the winter to breed and back to Antarctic feeding waters in the spring. Southern Cross University whale researcher Wally Franklin credits an increase in whale watchers to Migaloo because "he is an amazing sight and easy to track… he has become the ambassador of his kind.'' As an ambassador, Queensland has declared him a special interest whale, with hefty fines levied on those who venture too close, whether by sea or air. All whales are protected by restrictions and fines for the sake of the animals and humans alike; full grown humpback whales can weigh more than a tractor trailer. With his special status, Migaloo is given a wider berth than his typically pigmented friends on his yearly track.
Do me a favor and try this: stay where you are and click your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Now walk somewhere else, and click your tongue again. Can you hear a difference? Congratulations, you’re on your way to learning how to echolocate! Whales and dolphins use echolocation to navigate and locate objects in the dark ocean. According to acoustic experts in Spain, people can use tongue clicks to “see” things by listening to the way the noise reverberates off its surroundings. All you have to do is recognize changes in your tongue clicks based on what is around you. Apparently, two hours per day for a couple of weeks is enough to determine if something is in front of you, and it takes a couple more weeks to differentiate between a tree and pavement. The most ideal sound is the “palate click” where you place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth and quickly move your tongue backwards.
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.
When I usually read about theft and the sea, I think of overfishing and depleted natural resources. But this time around, it is a hungry predator taking advantage. Check out this video on National Geographic Kids and get ready for a surprise around the 35 second mark. One particularly smart sperm whale has learned how to shake fish free of lines without injury. Perhaps if he had enough food in the open sea, he wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics.
Ever wonder how you measure up (literally) compared to a blue whale? It is easy to throw around things like “largest mammal” and “gentle giant of the deep” but it can be hard to imagine just how large these animals are. Visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society website for a chance to see just how mammoth these creatures are. A life size image of a blue whale scrolls across your screen. The first image that loads is of an eye the size of your palm. I kid you not -- I gasped out loud. Encountering animals in their natural habitats is far more awe-inspiring than flash versions on my computer screen, but I’ll take the virtual version for now.
Good news for this whale Wednesday: According to new research presented, interestingly, at the Acoustical Society of America, the distinctive calls of North Atlantic right whales have been detected in a former whaling ground off the southeastern tip of Greenland. Right whales in the area were presumed extinct due to hunting in the late 19th century, and in the past 50 years, only two whales have been spotted in the area. Curious what the right whale sounds like? Listen to the "upcall," "gunshot" and "scream" the scientists might have heard.
Welcome to Whale Wednesday, the first ever hump(back) day feature devoted to cetaceans. I'm taking a cue from Oceans4Ever, the masters of alliterative weekly features, like Make a Difference Monday and Freaky Fish Friday. Hopefully this will become a semi-regular feature -- what's not to love about whales, after all? Today, three scintillating stories about cetaceans: 1. The Seattle Times reports on the first scientific review of the effort to reintegrate Keiko, the "Free Willy" orca, into the wild. The paper, which appears in the journal Marine Mammal Science, shows that while Keiko wasn't accepted by other orcas and had to be fed frozen fish until he died in 2003, he lived a longer life span than any other captive male orca. Turns out Willy's freedom was only possible on screen -- having been captured at the age of 2, he had been held in captivity too long to make it on his own.