Late 2020 Happy Whale News

Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard. Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman

Thanks to Katherine J. Wu for this, especially for sharing the recordings of the whale song, and the musical reference for how to think about the difference between this whale population’s song and the that of other whale populations:

A New Population of Blue Whales Was Discovered Hiding in the Indian Ocean

The whales in the group seem to sing a unique song.

Weighing up to 380,000 pounds and stretching some 100 feet long, the blue whale — the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth — might at first seem difficult for human eyes and ears to miss.

But a previously unknown population of the leviathans has long been lurking in the Indian Ocean, leaving scientists none the wiser, new research suggests. Continue reading

Whale Fall

Illustrated by Armando Veve

Whales and other charismatic marine megafauna are frequently in the news related to discoveries of their mysterious navigational or communication skills, or with bad news about the negative impacts of ocean acidification or other human interaction. It never occurred to us how the decomposing carcass of something that immense can be a biological gift to marine systems that could last centuries.

A Whale’s Afterlife

On the day before Thanksgiving, 2011, Greg Rouse, a trim marine biologist in his fifties, was tidying his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California. Rouse studies the worms and other small animals that inhabit the deep sea. He was organizing his microscopes, dissection supplies, and jars of deep-sea critters when he received a long-anticipated e-mail.

In the late two-thousands, Rouse and Eddie Kisfaludy, then an operations manager for Virgin Oceanic, had begun meeting with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the city of San Diego to pitch an alternative approach to the disposal of dead whales. Often, whales that wash up on shore are hauled to landfills or pushed back into the water. Rouse and Kisfaludy wanted to tow one out to sea, sink it to the seafloor, and watch what happened. Whale falls, as marine biologists call such events, create pop-up habitats that may serve as stepping stones for organisms migrating from methane seeps or hydrothermal vents to other parts of the ocean. Precisely how this works, and which species colonize the carcass as it degrades, were open questions that Rouse hoped to answer.

In the e-mail, a biologist from NOAA wrote that a large female fin whale had washed ashore four days previously, on the rocky beach at Point Loma, just west of downtown San Diego. The NOAA team had already moved the carcass to the protected beaches of Mission Bay and performed a necropsy, concluding that the whale had been hit by a ship. Now they were ready to hand it over to Rouse: if he could mobilize the necessary resources on short notice, the whale was his to sink.

Rouse quickly met up with Kisfaludy to strategize. They needed a boat big enough to tow a sixty-foot, twenty-three-ton whale, so Kisfaludy leaned on a Newport-based friend, Chris Welch, for the use of his large catamaran. To sink the carcass, they sourced five tons of rusty chains from Newport Harbor and another two tons of iron shackles from the Scripps scrap yard, in San Diego.

On Thanksgiving morning, Welch set out in his catamaran—rusty chains on board—and sailed south. The next day, he met up with Rouse, Kisfaludy, and a growing group of intrigued friends at the dead whale. It rested on the sand, immovable. At high tide, however, the carcass began to float, and the team made its move. They tied seven ropes around the whale’s tail and sailed west. Several hours passed. The weather was crisp and sunny, and there was little boat traffic. To Rouse’s surprise, the whale had attracted no scavengers, despite its exposed rolls of dark purple muscle draped in white, translucent fat. The team began to consider names for the whale. Someone suggested Rosebud, and it stuck. Continue reading

Paul Watson Speaks

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A photo from 2013, released by the environmentalist group Sea Shepherd, showing minke whales on the deck of a Japanese ship in the Antarctic. Japan says it will restrict whalers to its own waters as it resumes commercial whaling. Credit Tim Watters/Sea Shepherd Australia, via EPA, via Shutterstock

I had to read to the end to see Paul Watson’s name, and more importantly his proclamation on the significance of Japan’s withdrawal. It has been a long time since we have seen him or Sea Shepherd in our pages. My thanks to Daniel Victor and his employer for this important story:

Japan to Resume Commercial Whaling, Defying International Ban

Japan said on Wednesday that it would withdraw from an international agreement and resume commercial whaling, a defiant move to prop up an industry that still has cultural significance there, despite plummeting demand for whale meat.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the country would leave the International Whaling Commission, which established a moratorium on hunting whales that took effect in 1986.

The international agreement never stopped Japanese whaling, because it allowed the country to continue killing whales for scientific research while selling the meat. Critics considered the research a sham, little more than a cover for commercial whaling. Continue reading

Spying On Whales, For Our Sake As Well As Theirs

 

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Whales are a powerful oceanographic force in their own right, one that begets even more life; many ecosystems are still straining to equilibrate from the effects of twentieth-century whaling. Photograph by Francois Gohier / VWPics / Redux

x400.jpgIt may be too late, but this is too important to pretend it does not matter. It is not too late to learn from our mistakes. Peter Brannen, a science journalist and the author of “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions” gets our thanks for this review in the New Yorker, titled We May Never Understand the Ocean-Wide Damage Done by Industrial Whaling:

A few months ago I learned that, as recently as 1972, General Motors was using sperm-whale oil in transmission fluid in its cars. I’m not sure why I was surprised to learn this. It took nearly another decade for much of the world to agree to ban commercial whaling, in 1982. (A handful of countries still ignore the ban.) But the detail about G.M. still struck me as anachronistic. The global pursuit of whales inescapably connotes the romance of nineteenth-century New Bedford and Nantucket: delicately embossed scrimshaw, Melville, oil paintings of stately twilit schooners setting out on the main. Not puke-green Chevy El Caminos. Continue reading

Humpback Comeback, Brink To Boom

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Humpback whales in the southern oceans around Antarctica appear to be breeding successfully, recovering their population. Credit Eitan Abramovich/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ford does what it thinks to be in the best interest of its shareholders, and other companies follow suit as they sense the opportunity to do so, reducing their environmental responsibilities. Meanwhile and nonetheless, thanks to the work of organizations like WWF and Greenpeace, we have the opportunity to witness, if from afar, the rebirth of a population that signals some intact corners of the earth’s environment:

Humpback Whale Baby Boom Near Antarctica

Blue whale, New Zealand

© naturepl.com/Mark Brownlow/WWF

In a rare piece of good news for whales, humpbacks who live and breed in the southern oceans near Antarctica appear to be making a comeback, with females in recent years having a high pregnancy rate and giving birth to more calves.

Humpback whales were nearly hunted out of existence in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries until treaties were signed to stop killing them and protections were put in place for the world’s coldest, least accessible continent.

Humpback Whales in the Southern OceanThe end of hunting has fostered the recovery of the school-bus-sized animals whose life spans are roughly comparable to ours, according to Ari Friedlaender, an associate researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz, who led the new study.

The population was believed to have been reduced to less than 10 percent of it pre-whaling levels. Continue reading

Respecting Our Oceans, And Our Fellow Beings

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A humpback whale calf that washed ashore in Wantagh, New York. A series of “unusual mortality events” among whales has scientists worried that the ocean is more dangerous than ever. Photograph by Mario Tama / Getty

Thanks to Marguerite Holloway, who we have appreciated a couple times earlier, for this:

One foggy morning last April, a dead humpback whale washed up on New York’s Rockaway Beach. It was a young male, thirty-one feet long, and had extensive bruising—the result of contact with “something very large,” according to Kimberly Durham, of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, who performed the necropsy. The Rockaway whale was one of sixty-eight humpbacks that have died between North Carolina and Maine since 2016, casualties in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling an “unusual mortality event.” And humpbacks, it turns out, are not the only species suffering. Continue reading

Tapping The Largest Animal For Science

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Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, deploying a multi-sensor tag on a blue whale off the California coast. Credit Jeremy Goldbogen

Camera traps, in the interest of science, and of conservation, are no longer a novelty. The story accompanying the photo above is new, for us. At first glance it looks like an act of aggression, which the history of whaling has taught us to expect. But this story has a much better outcome than the old obsessions:

How to Attach a Video Camera to a Humpback Whale

This is how you put a video camera on a whale.

Hop into an inflatable boat and head out to where they’re feeding. Stand in a pulpit with a 20-some-foot pole in your hands. Then watch and wait until you spot a whale. Plan your angle of approach with the driver of the boat. (Never approach directly from behind). Get close. Get closer. Get within 16 feet of this sea giant — which is more than twice the size of your boat if it’s a humpback — and as soon as it surfaces, tap the whale on its wet tire of a back with the pole. If you’re lucky, the detachable suction-cup on the end of the pole — which has a camera and sensors — will stick. Continue reading

Sea Shepherd & Cuvier’s Beaked Whales

It has been a long while since our last link to Sea Shepherd news, shame on us, but today we rectify it with news from Seth and Jocelyn’s neighborhood–actually on the Pacific side of Mexico’s Baja California Sur but as close as most people get:

Sea Shepherd Records Never Before Seen Footage of Rare Cuvier’s Beaked Whales During Expedition in Mexico

Sea Shepherd’s research vessel the R/V Martin Sheen returned to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island to continue its study of Cuvier’s beaked whales, capturing never before seen drone footage of these rare and elusive cetaceans.

During the two-week expedition, Mexican lead-scientist Gustavo Cardenas Hinojosa and American collaborator Jenny Trickey, deployed various acoustic devices to compare their effectiveness. The scientists will return and leave these devices for a longer period of time. Continue reading

Magnifying Whale Scale Science

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A blue whale off the coast of California. CreditSilverbackFilms/BBC

Ed Yon’g posting on the Atlantic website pursued the same natural history question as Nicholas St. Fleur’s How Whales Became the Biggest Animals on the Planet, and both science writers provide their specific source as seen here in the Times article:

…In a study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers investigated gigantism in baleen whales, the filter-feeding leviathans that include blue whales, bowhead whales and fin whales. The marine mammals became jumbo-size relatively recently, they found, only within the past 4.5 million years. The cause? A climatic change that allowed the behemoths to binge-eat…

The number of written words in both is about the same, and the quality of writing is comparable, but the photos in the Times article magnify the words there by, it seems, a thousand times, which explains why we are linking to another whale scale story a second day in a row:

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Baleen whales became big around the same time as when ice sheets began covering the Northern Hemisphere. CreditSilverbackFilms/BBC

Continue reading

Whispering Whales

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A mother and calf humpback whale swim in the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia. Fredrik Christiansen/Functional Ecology

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story:

Recordings Reveal That Baby Humpback Whales ‘Whisper’ To Their Mothers

by Nell Greenfieldboyce

Whalesound.jpgBaby humpback whales seem to whisper to their mothers, according to scientists who have captured the infant whales’ quiet grunts and squeaks.

The recordings, described in the journal Functional Ecology, are the first ever made with devices attached directly to the calves. Continue reading

WhaleCam, Antarctica

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While fish were surf-spawning in California, the Guardian was sharing this footage from way down south:

The World Wildlife Fund released this footage filmed in March 2017 that shows the view from a camera attached to a whale in Antarctica. Scientists used suction cups to attach cameras to humpback and minke whales, revealing new feeding habits and their social lives. The data gathered will be used to protect whales and their ecosystems

Whales Off Sri Lanka

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While observing sperm whales off the Sri Lankan coast, Philip Hoare came face to face with eight hunting orcas who had no fear of the 100-strong sperm whale pod

Thanks to Philip Hoare for this photo-documentary of his recent dive in our old neighborhood just south of the southern tip of India:

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Photograph: Andrew Sutton

Continue reading

The Gulf Of California In Front Of Villa Del Faro

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Seth sent a snapshot he quickly took on his phone yesterday late morning at Villa del Faro. He had already told me the day before that they were seeing whales in the same vicinity of where the boats are in this photo, but he had not had his phone handy to snap a picture. So this would have to do. It looked as though a regatta was passing by. Continue reading

Conservation, Nature & Culture

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Credit Ping Zhu

A writer who captures the nuanced relationship between conservation of nature and culture has our attention:

The Lost Cultures of Whales

By

Aboard the Balaena, Caribbean — I am alone on deck, my headphones filled with the sounds of the deep ocean. I have been tracking the sperm whales since 4 a.m. Now the island of Dominica imposes its dark shape in front of the rising sun.

“We have whales!” I shout down to Hal Whitehead, who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project with me a decade ago. He puts the kettle on and asks who it is as he comes on deck. Continue reading

Yay, Iceland

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Thanks to Ecowatch for sharing this news, and megathanks to Iceland for making the news:

…Word today from colleagues in Iceland and now reports in both Icelandic and English-language media confirm that the planned hunt for fin whales will not happen this summer. The man behind that whaling is claiming that he’s stopping because of “hindrances” in exporting the meat. That’s great news for whales and everyone who has been opposing this needless, senseless hunt. Continue reading

Orcas In Captivity, Reviewed

Author John Hargrove interacts with Kasatka during a show at SeaWorld. He calls her “the most dangerous whale in the corporation.” PHOTOGRAPH BY MELISSA HARGROVE

Author John Hargrove interacts with Kasatka during a show at SeaWorld. He calls her “the most dangerous whale in the corporation.” PHOTOGRAPH BY MELISSA HARGROVE

A book we had heard about, finally reviewed in a publication where it belongs to be taken seriously by a global audience of concerned citizens:

Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas

Author says the damage to these animals in the name of entertainment and profit is morally and ethically unacceptable.

By Simon Worrall, National Geographic

Continue reading

All Hail This Whale Tale

Gray whale off the coast of Baja. Photo by Joe McKenna via Creative Commons

Gray whale off the coast of Baja. Photo by Joe McKenna via Creative Commons

Mr. Zimmer, whom we have been unintentionally neglecting as a source recently, has caught our attention again.  May we never tire of whale tales:

In May 2010, a whale showed up on the wrong side of the world.

A team of marine biologists was conducting a survey off the coast of Israel when they spotted it. At first they thought it was a sperm whale. But each time the animal surfaced, the more clearly they could see that it had the wrong anatomy. When they got back on land, they looked closely at the photographs they had taken and realized, to their shock, that it was a gray whale. This species is a common sight off the coast of California, but biologists had never seen one outside of the Pacific before.

Continue reading

Whales Need To Eat, Just Like The Rest Of Us

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The Guardian‘s Environment section gets us thinking, today, about the unfortunate qualifier–killer–to the name of this amazing animal. All of us non-vegetarians are killers, right? We just hide that fact as conveniently as we can. The spectacular fashion in which this particular marine mammal satisfies its appetites is something to behold:

Even before our boat left the shelter of Bremer Bay boat harbour, in south-west Western Australia, shortly after dawn on the first day of the region’s 2015 killer whale season, it felt like we were already at the edge of the world.

I was there to see a tiny place, far out to sea, that marine scientists and environmentalists regard as one of the most special ocean ecosystems anywhere in Australia’s commonwealth waters.

We would motor more than 65km offshore to a location not much bigger than a few football fields, where the ocean is 4.5km deep and weather conditions are almost always treacherous. Where we were going there was a not a single distinguishing feature or landmark – just a GPS point.

More than anything, though, no one yet knows for sure why each year, during February and March, life from around the Southern Ocean converges on that relatively minute speck in the ocean wilderness. Continue reading