Happy Friday, all! This week in ocean news, ...The New York Times described the threats facing sea turtles who nest on Miami's popular beaches. ...New research indicates that because killer whales in the Puget Sound must raise their voices to be heard over the din of boats, they may be exhausting themselves as they try to find food. ...Thanks to the loss of Arctic sea ice, two German ships are poised to become the first to go from Asia to Europe in the Arctic waters north of Russia.
Here's your zen moment of the day for Whale Wednesday: take a deep breath, a cue from the remaining North Atlantic right whales, and slow it down. A new study indicates that larger areas of speed limits for ships around major ports could significantly help the survival of North Atlantic right whales, whose population numbers fewer than 400 individuals. The study notes that expanding seasonal speed-restriction zones around major East Coast ports by 10 nautical miles would significantly reduce the risk of collisions with ships, which are among the greatest threats to the whales. And not only would expanded speed limits help save these endangered whales, they would also help combat climate change. As Oceana wrote in a report from last year, Shipping Impacts on Climate, reducing the shipping fleet's speed is one significant way to cut fuel costs and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, and nitrous oxide.
Sperm whales are named for the waxy oil in their head, spermaceti. Used in many industries ranging from cosmetics to automotive, spermaceti drove whalers to target sperm whales and they are now listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Due to their size, however, sperm whales have been known to fight back, famously attacking and sinking the whaling ship, Essex, the ship Moby Dick is based upon. Learn more about these large predators and other animals in the Creature Corner.
No matter where you are in the world, you can get in on whale watching action via the magic of the interwebs. Whale watching has gone digital, bringing cetacean sightings to all, even those in landlocked states. Documentary filmmaker David Anderson has mounted several cameras on his 50-foot catamaran, allowing anyone with internet access the chance to see whales and dolphins off the southern California coast. And for those who can’t afford to spend all day staring at a computer screen hoping to catch a glimpse of a flipper, Anderson updates his viewers via Twitter, sending out alerts prior to sightings. Check out his website for more info, including how to sign up to be an indoor whale watcher.
As promised, I'll be bringing you regular updates from the Ranger expedition to the Canary Islands. Here's one from last weekend. -Emily Almerimar-Chipiona Voyage. Saturday, August 15, 2009 By Silvia Garcia Sunny, calm during the morning, and strong gusts of wind in the Strait. Last night we left Almerimar bound for Chipiona which will take us about 30 hours of sailing. Going through the Strait has entailed sailing with the sails up because of the gusts of wind we have come across after coming from a completely calm Alboran Sea. Of course, in the Strait, we have sighted numerous cetaceans, normally family groups, of both long-finned pilot whales and common dolphins and striped dolphins; a mixed group of common and striped dolphins swam alongside the ship’s bow for quite awhile. On several occasions there were some babies and juveniles in these groups. We also came across a huge ocean sunfish (Mola mola) sunning, and a good-sized patch of sargasso (Sargassum vulgare) adrift, uprooted from the ocean bottom by a storm or aggressive fishing gear.
Orcas live and travel in pods, which are groups of ten to twenty animals – this is not new information. However, researchers in Russia recently spotted superpods, groups of up to 100 killer whales. These meetings last anywhere from a few hours to a half day and are characterized by common social behaviors – mating, flipper rubbing, synchronized swimming – but to a higher degree than typically observed. What do these social clubs mean and why do they matter? They may simply be another avenue to socialize. Since their large numbers may actually scare off prey, they don’t seem to be an effective way to hunt. Perhaps most importantly, they may be a chance for whales from different pods to meet up and check out potential mates. With calf mortality rates as high as 50 percent in the first six months, any research into understanding orca reproduction is critical in maintaining healthy populations.
Here's a heartwarming story for you this WW, again featuring the playful beluga: Mila the beluga whale guided a free diver back to the surface when she was struck with wicked leg cramps during a competition. In freezing cold water without any breathing equipment, Yang Yun felt paralyzed during a free diving contest at Polar Land in Harbin, China. She and the other participants had to dive to the bottom of the aquarium’s arctic tank and stay there for as long as possible among the beluga whales. Yun began to sink, thinking she was done for, until she felt something pushing her up. It was Mila's nose guiding Yun safely back to the surface. Belugas' facial muscles allow them to smile -- and I'm sure Mila and Yun both were grinning big after this episode.
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.
It used to be that if you went on a whale-watching adventure, you'd be lucky to see even a blow. Now, especially in Baja California, Mexico, whales are getting closer to humans than ever, which is allowing us to see how similar whales actually are to humans. In an insightful article by Charles Siebert in Sunday’s New York Times he discusses his experiences with the very friendly gray whales in Baja and argues that these new insights into the behavior of gray whales are forcing humans to “reconsider and renegotiate what once seemed to be a distinct boundary between our world and theirs”. Siebert remembers watching a mother whale and her calf breach from afar, and then, surprisingly, pursue the boat. The whales came right up to him, even allowing him to touch the newborn. They performed what could only be called a show, as the whales turned, flipped, and wove around the boat. And, as the grand finale, his boat was lifted up out of the water on the mother’s back. Whales have now come to consider humans as “safe” and trustworthy, he argues, even after all the harm humans caused them in the past. Siebert proposes that whales have “behavioral flexibility” and are giving humans another chance.