Meeting for a Drink in the Northwest Passage
Posted by Richard Conniff on September 27, 2011
Zak Smith is a lawyer working for the Natural Resources Defense Council on marine mammal protection. And–go figure–he knows how to write clearly. Smith posts a weekly roundup of whale news, and here’s his latest:
Lots of news in the world of whales this week (or close to this week):
- “Nice to meet you, we haven’t seen your family in these parts in 10,000 years.” This may have been the conversation when a male bowhead whale from the Greenland side of the Arctic mingled with a male bowhead whale from the Alaska side after they met north of the Canadian mainland in the fabled “Northwest Passage.” The meeting was possible following the second lowest level of sea-ice extent recorded in the Arctic since 1979, one of the most obvious and potentially devastating effects (good bye polar bears) of global warming. Fossil evidence reveals that these two populations of bowhead whales have not been in contact for anywhere between 8,500 and 11,000 years. I’m sure they had a lot to catch up on. Maybe that is why the hung out in the same area for about 10 days.
- Researchers have identified a “new” dolphin species – Burrunan Dolphin (Tursiops australis). Of course, the species is not new at all, with aboriginal people documenting their existence for over 1,000 years, but until recently the two resident populations of this species found in southeastern Australia were designated as members of already identified bottlenose dolphin species. Not so, according to Kate Charlton-Robb of Monash University. Ms. Charlton-Robb and her colleagues studied dolphin skulls and DNA to confirm that Burrunan Dolphin is unique. In their article, “A New Dolphin Species, the Burrunan Dolphin Tursiops australis sp. nov., Endemic to Southern Australian Coastal Waters,” the scientists explained that “formal recognition of this new species is of great importance to correctly manage and protect this species,” which is especially crucial given the proximity of the two small resident populations to major urban and agricultural centers. I say, “Welcome Burrunan Dolphin to the world of proper classification and good luck not going extinct (see below), you’re going to need it.”
- Unfortunately Scotland’s only resident pod of killer whales is doomed to extinctionafter failing to produce a single surviving calf in 20 years. While other killer whales visit Scottish waters, the nine whales left from this pod, John Coe, Floppy Fin, Comet, Aquarius, Nicola, Lulu, Moneypenny, Puffin, and Ocassus, make the waters off the west of Scotland their home year round. Scientists think pollution is to blame (no surprise there as whales store contaminants in their body fat, which is passed onto calves when feeding). And while nothing can help this pod, the scientists hope that restrictions will be put in place to limit contaminants in water, helping other whales avoid the same fate.
- Of course, contaminants aren’t the only threat whales face. Ship strikes are a serious threat to could lead to the local extinction of Bryde’s whales in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. Last week a Bryde’s whale died after being struck by a ship in the gulf. The necropsy showed sever trauma causing death, including 15 fractured vertebrae, broken ribs, and extensive bruising. Professor Mark Orams says, “If it continues to happen, we can potentially see a local extinction of the species in the Hauraki Gulf.” Fortunately, there’s a way to help these whales – imposing speed restrictions on commercial shipping vessels passing through the gulf on their way to port.
- While no one knows what whales are saying to each other when they make their calls, scientists are trying to decipher the language of blue whales. Here’s my guess as to what they are saying:
Whale 1: “Hey, did you hear about what’s happening to killer whales in Scotland and Bryde’s whales in New Zealand? What a mess.”
Whale 2: “Yes, it’s just awful. And did you hear what happened to Mike Minke? He was one of the 195 whales killed by Japan’s whaling fleet this season in the northwest Pacific Ocean.”
Whale 1: “Ugh.”
- But wait, aren’t whales too dumb to realize what is going on? Apparently not. New evidence suggests that dolphins may comprehend mortality, grieving for their dead. The most recent evidence comes from a researcher, Joan Gonzalvo, who has observed heartbreaking behavior in dolphins. In one instance, a mother dolphin repeatedly lifted the corpse of her deceased newborn calf to the surface. According to Gonzalvo, “This was repeated over and over again, sometimes frantically, during two days of observation. The mother never separated from her calf…. [She] seemed unable to accept the death.” Unfortunately, something tells me that whales have a lot more grieving to do.
- Let’s get back to the bright side; Narwhals are awesome. Check out this article that talks about Narwhals jousting for superiority in the summer months. It has great photos too. Amazing animals.
Meanwhile, this week in Wales…
Worlds still colliding…. Plans to build a 417-turbine windfarm, as big as the Isle of Wight, were revealed this week in Wales. The windfarm is supposed to be located in the Bristol Channel, covering a 257 square mile patch of the Channel, spanning 25 miles east to west. A spokesperson for the Porthcawl Environmental Trust expressed concern about the impacts the farm could have on the harbor porpoises, a marine mammal common in the Channel.