Whale Wonders

Whales seem to be in the forefront of my mind today. Dear husband sent me a link to this amazing 7 minute video of orca’s cavorting in Dyes Inlet in my adopted state of Washington just last month. It’s delightful to watch. They slap their tails on the surface, they breach, they pop their heads up to spy on those of us who are unfortunate enough to be land-based mammals. There’s even a baby amongst them. It’s just a joyous group of orcas, doing their orca thing.

And then I read this fascinating article entitled, The ‘narluga’ is a strange hybrid. But it’s far from alone. It’s about a cross between a narwhal and a beluga. Scientists were able to confirm this because the Inuit hunter still had the skull, and they were able to get DNA from its strange teeth. Whereas a narwhal usually has the one tooth that grows out like a unicorn horn and a few teeth-like protrusions growing behind that, and belugas have 40 teeth, this skull had 18 teeth up front, some as twisty as a narwhal tusk. There were a few other strange findings about this skull, but I’ll let you read more about that in the article itself.

The article did go on to say that marine mammals seem to create hybrids a lot more often than we land dwellers do. It seems it’s a very sexually experimental world down there beneath the waves. And the exciting thing is not all of them are rendered sterile like hybrids usually are on land. (When donkeys and horses produce mules, for example, they can’t reproduce.) So it’s a mad, mad watery world.

Speaking of mad, though, I was very angry to hear that the Japanese are back to commercial whaling. But then I read this article, and this one, and was slightly comforted. It seems that they used to hunt whales for “research” and then they’d sell the meat. Now the government doesn’t want to subsidize the practice, so they’re allowing commercial fishermen to take it over on a much smaller scale, and that will get smaller each year, and will have to take into account that the average Japanese person doesn’t really have a taste for whale meat, and with the declining young population, they will be hard pressed to find the 300 fishermen they’ll need to keep it up, especially when other fishing industries pay a lot more.

Let’s hope this obscene industry dies a natural death. It’s only currently active on an industrial scale in Japan, Iceland, and Norway. But there is more money to be made from eco-tourism, there’s a better international reputation, and there are much more delicious things to eat for those who eschew whaling these days.

Also, I once mentioned in a blog post that belugas have been known to mimic the human voice. How can you hunt something that joyfully plays and is smart enough to mimic? How do you eat something that likes to sexually experiment? I ask you.

Non-smoking Narluga

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Intelligence in Eyes

Musings during a really bad commute: I can usually tell if someone is intelligent just by looking in their eyes. Why is that? How is that possible?

Am I profiling? Am I being judgmental? Maybe. But it works for me.

I respond to people who have curiosity in their eyes. Inquisitiveness. I like it when people are alert and participating in life. People who appear interested in learning are usually the very ones who actually learn. Go figure.

I can connect with some animals through their eyes, too. I’ve seen enough intelligence in the eyes of dolphins and elephants and whales to make me gasp. It amazes me that anyone could want to harm them. There’s just so much there there.

Dilation of the eyes can indicate interest. Eye contact can, too. (Although I must say that a prolonged, unblinking stare gives me the willies.)

There’s a reason that people say that the eyes are the window to the soul. We’ve learned to read people by gazing into their eyes. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Most of us (including me) couldn’t tell you how it works, exactly. But most of us know that it does.

So, if your eyes glaze over as if you’ve lost interest, then don’t be surprised if I lose interest, too.

Elephant Eye

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The Whales of the World Need a Blackfish II

Well, I just had a very emotional evening. I saw the documentary entitled Blackfish, and a part of my childhood shattered like a crystal glass being thrown against a concrete wall. This documentary came out in 2013, and while I was aware of some of the controversy sparked by it, and saw SeaWorld scramble to repair its tarnished image in its aftermath, I didn’t see the film until just this month, so I had absolutely no idea how horrified I should be by the state of captive Orcas.

I grew up near Orlando, Florida, and went to its many theme parks dozens of times. After a while, Disney began to seem rather dated and repetitive. I frankly could care less if I ever go there again. But SeaWorld… oh, how I loved SeaWorld!

I love animals, in general. I love watching them and learning more about them. I really do believe, even now, that certain types of captivity have value in the aggregate. Animals that have been rescued after injury, that can no longer survive in the wild, who are housed in locations that are spacious and as much like their natural habitats as possible, and are given proper stimulation and care and are able to maintain social structures, while not being required to perform for our viewing pleasure, can act as ambassadors for their species.

I genuinely believe that seeing animals close up makes humans appreciate them more. I think the more we learn about them, the more we tend to care about the state of the planet. But this movie made me realize that we’ve crossed a line.

Whales should not be kept in concrete pools, with only 1,100 square yards of space, when they require a minimum of 300 times more than that to thrive. Mothers should not be separated from babies, which would normally stay by them for life. No one should be isolated in a pool with no stimulation, only to be called out a few times a day to perform like a puppet on a string.

I did not let myself see that as a child. I got caught up in the whole spectacular show. The good-looking, enthusiastic trainers, who obviously loved the whales, but in truth, had absolutely no control as to how they were treated. I chose to see joy, rather than angst. Playfulness, rather than desperation. I wanted those whales to love their lives.

But they don’t.

As I grew older, I saw other captivity red flags. Orangutans all alone in darkened rooms, looking listless and profoundly depressed. A dolphin with a broken jaw, at a swim with the dolphins place in South Florida. (He had never experienced a wall before his capture, and had slammed right into it.) A walrus, in a pool way too small, swimming in a vertical circle, over and over and over again. (I watched him for 20 minutes, with tears in my eyes.) Tigers pacing in tiny cages. And any creature at all, in a circus. Circuses should be outlawed.

The sad thing is that SeaWorld still has its Orcas, and they still have their shows. They’ve repackaged them to make them seem much more humane, organic, and educational, but those whales are still floating in those wretched pools, their lifespans 1/3 as long as their wild brethren.

What we need is another documentary, Blackfish II, to show how SeaWorld has attempted to rebrand itself, while not significantly changing the quality of life of its whales. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they’re no longer breeding whales in captivity, or capturing whales at sea. I’m glad they contribute to conservation causes, and do make some efforts to educate people. But they are doing so while holding these animals prisoner and profiting from it. There is nothing, nothing at all, that justifies that. We need a second documentary to increase the pressure so that SeaWorld and similar companies will finally do the right thing.

While all these Orcas, who have been in captivity for so long, would probably be incapable of being released into the wild, there are those who think that a whale sanctuary is the most viable option. They would still be enclosed, but they’d have 300 times the space, and they’d be in the ocean, with its natural ebb and flood. They’d have room to move and socialize and feel the sun and the rain and the most natural habitat possible, while remaining safe and cared for.

It’s not ideal. We can’t repair all our damage. It’s way too late for that. But it’s a heck of a lot better than what they experience now. If you agree, please join me in supporting the mission of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Orca in captivity

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Growly Dreams

I enjoy watching my dogs dream. Their little paws run and they sometimes twitch and yip. I imagine they’re chasing squirrels. But tonight Devo was growling in his sleep. I called his name from across the room. I didn’t want to touch him in case he thought I was the adversary. (I’d like to keep intact the illusion that I’m in charge.) When he woke up he looked a little confused for a second.

Was he the aggressor in the dream, or was he being attacked? I hope it was the former. I hope he doesn’t have dog-shaped nightmares. I hope that he isn’t experiencing anxiety or stress that is expressing itself in his subconscious. God knows I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately, and I’m sure he senses it. But I want him to have sweet dreams. As shitty as my life sometimes is, I pride myself in giving my pets a happy existence. They didn’t ask to be here.

What are animal dreams like? Scientists are discovering that a wide variety of animals play, so they must get bored. But they seem to cope with boredom much better than we do. That implies that they have rich inner lives. If that’s the case, they have imaginations, so are their dreams as surreal as ours can sometimes be? And what would be surreal to an animal?

I know when I lived in Mexico, my dreams got very simplistic because I couldn’t express myself as fully in Spanish as I can in English. How do you express yourself without language? How do you see things when your color spectrum is different? If you’re capable of hearing a lot more, are your dreams more aural?

The one image that I can’t get out of my head is that of a sleeping whale. Some types slumber in the darkest depths, head downward. That must feel like being in a sensory deprivation tank. That has got to be the ultimate zen-like state.

Which begs the question: Do whales have wet dreams?

sleeping whales

There’s a Freakin’ HOLE in the Sun!

NASA released a video of a hole in the sun so massive it’s the equivalent of 50 planet earths across, and takes up about a quarter of the sun’s surface. It’s this big black mass, and it makes your basic sun spot look like a walk in the park. You can see the video here. This hole is causing magnetic field lines to whip out into the solar wind instead of back to the sun’s surface.

But here’s what I find most horrifying about this news: Apparently these holes are quite common. They come, they go.

Gloriosky. How have I managed to live on this planet for 48 years without knowing this? That’s like, I don’t know, living on Nantucket and not knowing about whales. Living in Orlando and not knowing about Mickey Mouse.

What else am I overlooking?

And how is this change in solar weather impacting us? I have no idea, but I fully intend to blame it for the foul mood I’ve been in for the past few days. Yeah. It’s all the sun’s fault. That’s it.

sun hole

Cool Science

Wow! How did I not know about this before? Thanks to the power of the internet, little old me (and little old you, for that matter) can help scientists make some pretty amazing breakthroughs.

Seriously, you have to check out the Zooniverse website. From there, you can link in to any number of amazing projects.

  • At Galaxy Zoo you can help scientists classify the bazillions of galaxies in our universe. You might even be the first person to actually see a picture of a particular galaxy. EVER. This is my favorite.
  • At Moon Zoo you can help visually classify features of the moon.
  • At Solar Stormwatch, you can study explosions on the sun.
  • At Planethunters.org, you can help find planets around stars.
  • At the Milky Way Project, you can help scientists understand how stars form.
  • At Planet Four, you can help them learn more about the weather on Mars.

Are you hooked yet? I am! But wait. There’s more.

  • At Old Weather, you can help scientist study past weather observations made by Royal Navy Ships.
  • You can classify over 30 years of tropical cyclone data at Cyclone Center.
  • Help identify texts and documents to study the lives of the Ancient Greeks at Ancient Lives. (This one is fascinating, but I wish there was a way to get the translation once you’ve helped decipher it.)
  • Help marine researchers understand what whales are saying at Whale FM.
  • Study images of the sea floor to create a library of ocean habitats at Seafloor Explorer.  (This is one of my other favorites.)
  • You can even help characterize bat calls at Bat Detective!
  • And perhaps most impactful of all from a human standpoint, you can help find a cure for cancer at Cell Slider.

Honestly, I can’t believe every home-schooler and every student for that matter, every retiree, every unemployed person isn’t glued to one of these websites! You can learn so much and actually have an impact. How can you resist?

star solar mixed_cancer_cells_color cluster

A Rare Gift from a Dolphin

I am a bridgetender at a bridge that spans the intracoastal waterway in Florida. This job gives me a front row seat to observe nature. The other night at around midnight, I was walking on the bridge to check if all the navigation lights were functioning properly. As often happens, I startled a blue heron, and it did not hesitate to voice its displeasure as it flew away. “SQUAWK, squawk, squawk…” I’ve heard that sound a million times at least. There was a brief pause and then I heard the same exact sound again. Identical. Except that this one came with three jets of water right below me. I looked down and there was a dolphin.

I came to an abrupt halt and just stared in shock. The dolphin had imitated the bird! By using its blow hole. I have never seen or heard anything like it. I stood there trying to accept what I’d just witnessed. As the dolphin swam away, I wondered who I could ask about this.

When I got home from work the next morning, I went straight to the internet and fired off an e-mail to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I figured, why not go straight to the top? The worst that could happen is that they’d think I was a total crackpot and ignore me.

So, feeling like a nut, I told them my story, and asked, “Have you heard of dolphins imitating other creatures, or making sounds from their blow holes? I didn’t even know they could jet water out of them like whales can. I’m dying to know if I’m completely crazy. I know what I saw, but it was so weird.”

For the next several days I tried to put it out of my mind. I honestly didn’t expect a response. These are very important people engaged in extremely vital scientific inquiries. Why would they waste time responding to little old me? But just a few days later, I received this response:

Hello,

Your message was forwarded to me by the WHOI Information office, since I study dolphin communication. Your observation is very interesting, and no, you are not crazy! I only wish you had had a video camera though since it would have been very cool to document what you heard. Dolphins are renowned vocal mimics, as are their relatives belugas (see attached recent paper by Ridgway et al). And they can be trained to make sounds like you heard (see attached paper by Lilly), but to my knowledge there are no published observations of spontaneous mimicry like you found. If it ever happens again, try to get video of it (I know it was at night, but even the audio would be great). I’m not sure about the water coming out of the blowhole. I guess they could not take in some water and shoot it out if they want to, but I have not personally observed this.

Best,

Laela Sayigh

I was really stunned by this response. Dr. Sayigh is a Research Specialist in the Biology Department at Woods Hole, and also a Research Associate Professor in the Marine Biology department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she focuses on animal communication, behavior and ecology, and here she was, confirming that what I’d seen was within the realm of possibility! I responded to her right away:

Hi Dr. Sayigh,

Thank you so much for your response! I will read the attachments with great interest.

I wish I had a video camera at the time, too, but the odds of me being at the exact right place at the exact right time again would be astronomical. I have been a bridgetender since 2001 and I’ve never seen or heard anything like it before. I feel like it was a rare gift, and don’t expect I’ll ever experience it again. It makes me very happy to know that this is really possible. How amazing.

And FYI, I just watched the movie “Dolphin Tale” about Winter, the dolphin with the missing tail that lives at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and I saw him squirting water out of his blow hole a few times.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my inquiry! I hope you don’t mind, but I write a daily blog, and I’d like to write about this in it. Is it okay if I mention your name?

Dr Sayigh was kind enough to allow me to mention her in this blog, and the papers she attached were, indeed, very interesting. Apparently dolphins can, in fact, be trained to mimic through their blowholes. And beluga whales have been observed, in the wild, to mimic a crowd of children shouting in the distance, and in captivity, to say “out” and their own name.

What I saw and heard that night was like winning the lottery. It was like being given a ticket to be on the front row for a very unique natural performance. It was as if, for a brief moment, the veil between man and dolphin was lifted up, and we were on the same page. I don’t think I’ll ever look at dolphins in the same way again.