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.
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.
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?
CNN has a terrific story about this year's crop of right whales, among the most endangered animals on earth. Just an estimated 400 of these massive creatures still live off the U.S. Atlantic coast, and they sometimes get struck by ships or tangled in lobster trap lines. But there seems to be good news: This year's crop of right whale calves is the largest ever recorded, with at least 32 new whales spotted by a bevy of scientists in prop planes and volunteers at lookout points on beaches. It's really a great story, so head on over and check it out.
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.
There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world today. After being hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th century, they are now most at risk from ship strikes. But starting today, the whales will get the right of way. A new federal rule requires ships 65 feet or larger to slow down to 11.5 miles per hour, or 10 knots, near East Coast ports when whales could be nearby. The whales -- so-called because they were the "right" whale to kill for oil because they floated when dead -- feed close to the surface and are especially vulnerable because many shipping lanes cut across their migration routes. Many of the creatures also get tangled in fishing gear, but scientists say ships are their main killer: At least one-third of all the right whales that died in the last decade died from ship strikes. The controversial measure has environmentalists cheering, but will the measure be enough to save the species?
Next spring, the Supreme Court will weigh in on the U.S. Navy’s use of high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar off the southern California coast. Use of this type of sonar, which the Navy admits may significantly disturb or injure an estimated 170,000 marine mammals, was challenged in court based on protections found in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. Now that oral arguments before the Supreme Court have concluded, we must wait for its decision in 2009. But when you’re as passionate about the issues as our staff and supporters, waiting can be incredibly difficult, so thanks to a Wavemaker in St. Augustine, FL named Marcella, I have something that you can do to help protect marine mammals and other ocean wildlife from sonar.
On Friday afternoon, I took a field trip, as I'd hoped, to the new exhibit at the National Geographic museum, Whales | Tohor?. I thought it was exceptional; it engaged all the senses (except taste) with interactive features both scientific and and cultural. The centerpiece of the exhibit -- the first thing I noticed -- was an impressive 58-foot long male sperm whale skeleton that was found beached in 2003. Next I checked out the series of ancient whale skeletons. The world's first whale, pakicetus attocki, looked an awful lot to me like an R.O.U.S.... It was neat to watch as each successive skeleton's limbs grew smaller and smaller, until they started to look like the whales we know and love -- 'twas quite a visual lesson in evolution.
In further noisy ocean news this past week, our nation's highest court heard oral arguments in the dispute over the Navy's use of mid-frequency active sonar off the coast. The sonar has been associated with whale injury and beach strandings; meanwhile, the Navy argues that halting or restricting sonar training exercises in any way harms national security. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the plaintiff in the case, many whales that have been beached as a result of sonar have suffered physical trauma, including bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues. In addition, many have shown symptoms akin to a severe case of "the bends" -- the illness that can kill scuba divers who surface quickly from deep water, implying that the whales' dive patterns are altered. Sonar has also been shown to disrupt feeding and other vital behavior and to cause a wide range of species to panic and flee. The NRDC case is specific to training exercises in the Pacific Ocean and whether the Navy has to be environmentally responsible in its routine trainings by reducing their impacts to whales.