The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

Right Whales Get Right of Way

north atlantic right whale

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?


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Naval Sonar Could Affect Whales, Dolphins

jacksonville sonar range affects whales, sea turtles, corals

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.


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Field Trip: Whales | Tohor?

humpback whale playing, whales tohora exhibit national geographic

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.


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Court Considers Whales and Sonar

beached whale

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.


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Hot Topics: Noisy Oceans

A new report looks at the effects of increased ocean acidity on how sound travels in seawater, which scientists have long suspected to be influenced by pH. The report found that drops in pH affect the ocean's chemical balance and consequently lower its sound absorption, especially to frequencies below 10 kilohertz (kHz). The researchers say that by the 1990s, the oceans absorbed 15% less sound than during the previous century, which will likely affect the communications of ocean wildlife as well as military operations, by making sound travel farther and increasing the ocean's ambient noise level. Already, scientists have discovered that blue whales, which normally communicate below1 kHz, have started calling at lower frequencies.


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Saving the Whales...Via Their Poop?

humpback whale

Props to the folks over at the Science blog Zooillogix for a great post this week about scientists in New England who are studying the Atlantic's threatened population of right whales by collecting and analyzing their floating, um, poop. Joking aside, analyzing whale poop -- or any other method of determining the health of certain whale populations -- is apparently needed. This week, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species revealed that while there is some good news for whales and some bad, the bottom line was that more data is needed. The IUCN was unable to assess more than half of the world's cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) because of a lack of data.


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Blue Whales' Songs Deepen

blue whale songs

When I read the headline of yesterday's New York Times article, "Whales’ Lower-Pitch Sound Has Experts Guessing," I assumed the lede would be something like, "Whales' songs are deepening as they grow depressed about global warming." Just goes to show, I generally associate deeper-pitched sounds with sadness and mourning -- and I assign human characteristics to animals perhaps too zealously... As it turns out, the lower moans might portend good after all. The piece reports that the song of blue whales around the world has grown deeper -- and scientists speculate that it could be because their population is on the rise since commercial whaling bans began to take effect in the 1970s.


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Bachelet Announces Whale Sanctuary in Chile

Speaking before the Chilean Congress on Wednesday, President Michelle Bachelet announced plans to ban all whaling activity in Chilean waters. President Bachelet will try to have the new law in place before the International Whaling Commission meets in Santiago next month. According to the Environmental New Service, Centro de Conservación Cetacea, Centro Ecoceanos, and the National Confederation of Artisan Fishers (CONAPACH) were the loudest advocates for this measure, but Oceana participated too.


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The Oceana Scanner: Friendly Cetacean Edition

This week in ocean news,

...a federal advisory panel weighed a ban on salmon fishing in California after a dramatic decline in the fishery. "The situation now is unprecedented and off the charts," said the executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council...

...a University of Tasmania scientist discovered two new types of toxic algae in the Southern Ocean, which he believes must be calculated into fishing quotas to prevent further overfishing...


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A Sight to Sea

The fight over whether whaling should be banned or not heated recently when two anti-whaling activists were detained on a Japanese fishing vessel after boarding the ship without permission to reportedly dispense information.


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