The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

Whale Wednesday

humpback whale

Image via wikimedia commons

Happy hump day, everyone. A15-year study of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere is providing scientists with new insight into the slow giants' mating habits. Researchers analyzed DNA skin samples from more than 1,500 humpbacks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They found that the highest rate of "gene flow" occurred with whales breeding on either side of Africa, with one or two whales swimming between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans each year to mate. It was the first time a humpback had been recorded travelling between the two oceans. (Now that's what you call a long-distance relationship.) Another interesting conclusion from the study was that the small humpback population of less than 200 in the Indian Ocean, off the Arabian Peninsula, was distinct genetically and unlike other populations did not migrate and therefore was a "conservation priority."

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Whale Wednesday: Baby Blue

scientists look for blue whales

More National Geographic love this week, only this time whale-related. Yesterday I went to NatGeo's "Tuesday at Noon" series, which I've been meaning to go to for a while. Every week they show a free short film, this week's was "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," and it followed scientists in their attempts to tag and photograph blue whales in the Pacific. Not only was it a nice break in the day, but I got my blue whale fix -- which, as you may have noticed, I'm mildly obsessed with -- and I was soothed by Tom Selleck's classy narration.

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Whale Wednesday: the Din Down Below

blue whale

Adding to the clatter about ocean noise comes the first study indicating that whales increase their calls in response to underwater noise. Scientists studying blue whales off the eastern Canadian coast found that the giants changed their calls in response to an underwater seismic survey. On days with seismic surveys, the whales made two-and-half-times more calls than on days without, probably because they have to "repeat information", as some of the communication is lost or degraded by the seismic activity. Sounds a lot like trying to have a conversation on your cell phone while riding the DC Metro. So what do the increased calls mean for the cetaceans? As one of the researchers said, "Our research doesn't say anything about whether this increase in call rate is negative for the animals, but of course it's not positive and it may be stressful."

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Whale Wednesday: Stuck on Salmon

New research out of Canada indicates that some killer whale populations prefer king (a.k.a. Chinook) salmon so much that the whales will actually die when salmon numbers fall. Here's the curious part: killer whales, as apex predators, have their pick of other fish or even other large marine mammals, but still some populations appear to be dependent upon king salmon as their primary food resource. Another study from Hawaii found that killer whales can identify king salmon even when they are swimming alongside Coho and Sockeye salmon. And even in the winter, when king salmon make up just 10 to 15 percent of the salmon in the water, killer whales use echolocation to pick out their favorite fish. That's some impressively picky eating. A recovering picky eater myself, I fully relate. And king salmon are undeniably delicious. Who can blame them? But suffering king salmon populations spell trouble for the orcas. The pollock industry catches enormous amounts of king salmon as bycatch. And due to the low populations, the 2008 king salmon fishing season was cancelled in Oregon and California, and again in 2009 in California. With king salmon lovers abound on land too, something's gotta give.

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The Scanner

loggerhead hatchlings

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Speed Limits Edition

north atlantic right whale

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.

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Back to School: Sperm Whale

sperm whale

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.

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Whale Wednesday: Land Lubber Whale Watching

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.

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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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