The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

Dispatches from Ranger: Dolphins!


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.

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Whale Wednesday: Orca Outing

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Beluga to the Rescue

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Beluga Spit

beluga whales

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.”

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Whale Wednesday: Whales on the Brain

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Are Whales Just Like Us?

gray whale

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.

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Victory! Krill Fishing Banned in Pacific


Marine wildlife is estimated to consume between 150 and 300 million metric tons of krill each year. So it’s pretty safe to say that it’s a good thing a ban on fishing for krill in US Pacific waters became federal regulation on Monday. The move ends a years-long advocacy campaign led by Oceana and supported by scientists, conservationists, and fishermen. The federal regulations mirror those of state limits out to three miles offshore in Washington, Oregon and California. Krill, a catch-all term for 85 species of small shrimp-like creatures, forms the foundation of many marine food webs. Animals such as salmon, whales, and sea lions all heavily rely on krill for survival. The ban also shows a new way of managing fisheries that prioritizes the health of marine ecosystems, and not just one species. Oceana is a strong supporter of ecosystem-based management. Congrats to all who were involved in making this happen!

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Whale Wednesday: Call Me Migaloo

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Learn How To Echolocate!

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Cetacean Culture

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.

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