The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

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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Whale Wednesday: Hungry Whales

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.


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Whale Wednesday: Beach Reading Edition

If you are looking for a good summer beach read, Eye of the Whale may be just the ticket. Billed as an ecological thriller, Douglas Carlton Abrams manages to successfully weave science into engaging storylines, providing a rich fictional entree into many of the issues Oceana works on. Abrams succeeds in giving threats such as ocean pollution, destructive fishing techniques, and the effects of climate change human (and cetacean) faces and with any luck, inspires his readers to action fueled by hope.


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Whale Wednesday

blue whale dorsal fin

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.


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Whale Wednesday

right whales

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.


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Whale Wednesday

keiko free willy orca

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.


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The Unicorns of the Sea

narwhal

During recess in grade school, I used to tie a sweater around my waist for a tail, use my pointer finger as a horn, and gallop around the playground, neighing and tossing about my mane. Yes, I was THAT girl who pretended she was a unicorn. I’ve since changed and fulfilled my interest in fantasy creatures by reading science fiction books and watching movies, but I don’t have to travel to the land of make-believe to learn about mysterious animals with impressive tusks. I just have to travel to the ice clogged inlets of Arctic Greenland, via this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Little is known about these “unicorns of the sea”- biologist and narwhal specialist Kristin Laidre speculates that “we probably know a lot more about the brains of grasshoppers than we do about narwhals." Check out the fascinating article for a history of the narwhal, how Laidre (sometimes) successfully tags narwhals, and why any of this is important.


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Sailors Detour for Whales

volvo ocean race

You may have read about the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race on our OCYC blog, but here's a first for the race: as the NYT reported, the seven remaining yachts had to make a detour to go around a whale sanctuary near Boston this weekend. The boats, which can reach 30 mph, sailed around the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the North Atlantic right whales that are feeding in the area. Due to the boats' speed, a collision with a whale can be disastrous for both parties -- the animal may be killed and crew members could be thrown into rigging (that's the sailing apparatus, for all you non-sailors). Marine mammal collisions are increasingly a problem. Several sailors in the recent Vendée Globe race sustained severe damage to their boats after hitting what they believed were marine mammals. And one sailor in the Artemis trans-Atlantic race last May had to abandon his boat after he reported striking a large sea mammal.


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Blue Whales at NatGeo

blue whale tail

I've been infatuated with blue whales since I was a child (who isn't?), so I was thrilled to watch Flip Nicklin, one of the preeminent whale photographers in the world, speak last night at National Geographic. The 61-year-old Nicklin was introduced to whales as a kid. He began by telling how his father, also a diver and underwater photographer, once rode a blue whale that was caught in a gill net (he later set it free, don't worry.) Since, then he's been traveling around the world, from Patagonia to Sri Lanka, in search of the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth. And sometimes they're not very easy to find. "I'm fairly deaf," Nicklin said, "so I'm glad the whales are big." Big is an understatement -- the modern-day dinosaurs can be up to 100 feet long and weigh 200 tons, and their hearts can weigh as much as an SUV. They eat krill almost exclusively, and sometimes up to four tons a day. On a recent expedition, he spent more than three weeks at sea, and saw only one blue whale for a total of about 15 minutes. He got five usable photographs, all taken during the same minute. "They're good at playing hide-and-seek," he joked. But sometimes they are quite literally under his nose. In one video he showed, a blue whale eyed him curiously -- from less than five feet away. And most recently, he traveled to Baja, where he saw more than 20 blue whales.


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The Scanner

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?


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