As the two orca brothers slipped quietly past us, their enormous shiny fins cut through the water like daggers. They had been weaving their way through the Strait for the past half hour and while Kaikash moved with ease and grace, his older brother Plumper was laboured in his movements. He struggled to remain at the surface and his breathing was strained and stressed.
Word in the area was that Plumper was dying. Seeing such a magnificent, big, bold creature, wheeze and struggle in his watery abode moved us all. There was nothing anyone could do except keep an eye out for him and his brother and hope and pray that somehow he would come right.
It was obvious from Plumper’s breathing that he was in trouble, but there was another more subtle sign that most people would never have noticed. Certain scientists, conservationists and locals knew he was starving to death, but how? Poor Plumper was suffering from a condition called ‘Peanut Head’.
A healthy, well fed orca in essence doesn’t have a discernable neck. Their head runs in a smooth line to their back, giving the appearance of a streamlined, glossy surface. If this creature due to illness or lack of food begins to starve, they lose weight around their head and a groove forms in the area where a neck would be on other creatures. This shrunken head and this notch in their ‘neck’ region gives them the unusual title of ‘Peanut Head’.
Some years earlier, there had been three of these brothers, or the three amigos as they were called. Plumper, Kaikash and their other brother Cracroft were an indomitable force and regularly seen together. Their mother Sophia had died in 1997 leaving the males to fend for themselves. In orca society, males stay with their mothers till death and some don’t thrive after her passing. The alliance forged between these three after Sophia’s death endured and the brothers were always seen together. They were even adopted for a time by a matriarch called Scimitar who had lost two of her own sons. Cracroft was the oldest of the three and was last seen alive in the Spring of 2010.
In the Spring and Summer of 2014, numerous sightings of Kaikash and Plumper around Johnstone Strait indicated that Plumper’s health was faltering. One of the last evenings out on the water for the season and Plumper was swimming ahead of us, silhouetted by the brilliant sunshine casting an ethereal glow on his back. As he exhaled, the mist that emanated from his body formed golden droplets that glittered and dazzled us. I took a photo of him in this cascade of light and this was when I first saw that mortal sign on his neck. The sun perfectly illuminated the depression beneath his head, an ominous sign of his failing health.
This was the last time that I saw Plumper alive. Within a couple of weeks he was missing, presumed dead. He was never seen again. Around the same week that I had seen him, researchers from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Vancouver Aquarium filmed orcas using a hexacopter drone. The research aimed to determine if salmon fisheries were impacting orca populations. Their pioneering research was establishing the body condition of the orcas in the area. Ascertaining the size of an orca from a boat is problematic as it is hard to see their bodies completely. However to view an orca from the sky is a different matter. The researchers were able to see clearly if certain individuals were thriving or declining. Footage of Plumper from the drone indicated that he was very skinny.
They were also able to see if any females were pregnant. Armed with this vital information, the scientists were able to foresee population growth and decline and pinpoint problematic areas. If an orca is starving, this can potentially illustrate an issue with declining fish stocks. With knock on effects of fish declines affecting orcas, new legislation and protective measures can be brought in to help these creatures.
Suzanne Burns, 2015.
Well, they do. A lot.
The following clip shows how, around the islands of Hawaii, dolphins and humpback whales have been engaging in some form of sea wrestling, with the whales lifting the dolphins out of the water and letting them slide down their backs.
There are a number of pictures across a number of locations, meaning that this behaviour is more widespread than first thought.
The observers noted that the behaviour was unlike other animal symbiotic relationships in that it was not for a beneficial purpose (such as parasitism), but almost certainly for play.
Scientists who investigated the phenomenon noted that there is also zero evidence that the behaviour was hostile – but a quick look at the clip will show you that.
Like me, you are probably upset that whales and dolphins have been hanging out together all this time and they didn’t tell us about it.
We are unsure exactly what the whale gets out of this situation, other than perhaps a nice back rub, but the pictures certainly make me want to put on the ol’ dolphin costume and head down to the beach.
Is it a brush? Is it a broom? No, it’s baleen!
It is found inside the mouths of baleen whales which are known as Mysticetes or the ‘Moustached whales’. This bristly mouthpiece is actually comprised of keratin which also makes our hair and nails. The baleen whales are among some of the largest whales in the world, including the blue whale and the humpback whale among others. Despite their enormous size, these giants feed on some of the smallest creatures in the ocean, krill and small fish. They swallow vast quantities of water and expel the water through the sieve-like krill plates. The little creatures get trapped in the baleen and the whale licks along the plates to flush the creatures into its mouth.
Suzanne Burns 2015.
The experience of being close to a whale is nothing short of transformative. When you are at close range and a whale looks at you square in the eye, you know that you are eye to eye with a sentient being. No amount of discussions on brain size or intelligence can take from that simple feeling of connection with this creature.
Suzanne Burns 2015.
Photo credit: http://great-whales.livejournal.com/2161.html
Gray whales, thought by some scientists to live as long as 100 years, were once commonly referred to as “hardheaded devil fish” because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young, smashing whaling vessels and killing their occupants. A gray-whale hunting ban agreed upon by most of the world’s whaling nations in 1937, along with the inherent resilience and adaptability of the eastern Pacific gray, has since allowed the species a rather remarkable rebound. Its current population is estimated to be in the range of 18,000, and in 1994 the gray became the first marine mammal to be removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Still, the question of why present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars, would take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms is a mystery that now captivates whale researchers and watchers alike.
Some marine biologists have dismissed the phenomenon as little more than a reflexive behavior, suggesting that the whales are merely attracted to the sound of the boats’ motors or that they are looking to scratch their lice-ridden and barnacled backs against the boats’ hulls. Still, a combination of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research into whale biology and behavior suggests that there may be something far more compelling going on in the lagoons of Baja each winter and spring. Something, let’s say, along the lines of that time-worn plot conceit behind many a film, in which the peaceable greetings of alien visitors are tragically rebuffed by human fear and ignorance. Except that in this particular rendition, the aliens keep coming back, trying, perhaps, to give us another chance. To let us, of all species, off the hook.
The story is by now legend in the small fishing villages of Baja and beyond: how on a February morning in 1972, Francisco Mayoral — who is known as Pachico and happens to be the father of Ranulfo, the guide on my trip with Frohoff — was out in his panga with his partner, Santo Luis Perez, fishing for sea bass when a female gray whale approached their boat. Pachico tried to maneuver away. The whale, however, kept rising up beside them. At one point, she positioned herself directly under the panga. Pachico, Ranulfo told me one night over dinner at our beachside base camp, had no choice but to hold his place and wait for what would come next. “All he knew,” Ranulfo recalled of his father, “was that this animal was the boss.”……
Of course, as the mother gray kept circling his boat on that February morning in 1972, the question of whether the grays of Baja had somehow heard the news of our gradual transition from murdering whales to marveling at them was very much on the mind of Pachico Mayoral. “At one point she went directly under and lifted the boat out of the water,” Ranulfo, the son, told me. Pachico and his partner were poised there helplessly, like Sinbad and countless other travelers along the “whale road,” as early Icelanders once referred to the sea.
And then their boat soon settled again, and the mother gray came back around once more, her head popping up out of the water now directly beside Pachico. She remained there for so long, just eyeing him, that Pachico finally reached across and touched her with a finger. And then with his whole hand, the whale holding still there before him, as if basking in the feel of a grasp without malice. “Before then, everyone went out of our way to avoid the whales,” Ranulfo told me. “And then all of that suddenly changed.”
Excerpt sourced from: New York Times, July 8, 2009. “Watching Whales Watching Us” by Charles Siebert
If a humpback whale was to go through the rigmarole of American airport security, he would be presenting his tail to them for scanning. We as humans, usually have our retinas and fingerprints scanned to make darn sure that we are who we say we are. In other words, a whale’s tail is as good as his fingerprint for all the intents and purposes of identification.
A whale’s tail is also referred to as a fluke and it is a unique and very powerful piece of equipment. The fluke is the rudder, brake and propeller for the whale. It moves in a vertical plane, pushing the enormous whale through the water with powerful thrusts. As well as locomotion the tail is used for communication and protection. Whales sometimes slap the water in what appears to be jovial exuberance. At other times this repeated slapping is used as a warning to predators to keep their distance or incur a heavy penalty if you venture too close. A 40 ton whale with a fluke of 4m wide is quite literally a lethal weapon. You do not want to be on the tail end of an agitated whale. To do so is suicide or at the very least, partial maiming.
The whale fluke has become somewhat of an iconic image, being used in so many instances from jewellery to branding of myriad of products and services. On close examination of this impressive appendage, many interesting shapes and creatures are actually to be found living on this fantastic fluke. Barnacles are commensal creatures that live their lives on their whale host. The barnacles can be helpful in identification as sometimes large aggregations are found on particular areas of the whale’s tail. The barnacles are an additional ally in a whale’s armoury. If a whale faces attack from a predator not only is the fluke an enormous aid, but the razor sharp coating of the barnacles will tear the skin of the whale’s foe. At times the barnacles will come off the whale’s fluke and the discolouration will also be useful in identifying the whale.
In Northern Vancouver Island, BC, a group of scientists, naturalists and whale enthusiasts have banded together to identify the humpback whales that spend their summers in the area. Each whale has had its fluke and also its dorsal fin photographed countless times. The best photos are used in cataloguing and identification of each humpback individual. Some whales have been named based in the fluke appearance. ‘Argonaut’ is so called because it has what looks like an ‘A’ notched into its fluke. Another whale called ‘Yahtzee’ looks like it has a dice sitting on its fluke ready to roll. Lesions, scarring due to entanglements with fishing equipment, close encounters with propellers and predators all take their toll on the integrity of the whale’s fluke.
The underside of the fluke is used to identify the whale as the colours and patterns tend to be more highly variable on this side than on the dorsal surface. Colouration on the ventral side of the fluke can range from an almost exclusively white side, through to a mix of white and grey, while others are more uniformly dark grey. Some flukes have an almost frilled edge which looks like some very feminine patterning while others have an almost straight edge to their tail. Combining these various attributes gives the keen eyed whale identifier plenty of information to figure out who is who.
This non invasive method of identification has done wonders for getting real data on whale populations and social dynamics. Incredibly with the humpback whale alone over the past decade, the numbers of whales in Northern Vancouver Island are increasing. The humpbacks seen and identified has risen from approx two animals in 2002 to over 50 catalogued in the past couple of years. Every whale tail we see is a beacon of hope for this beleaguered species and for its entire kin.
Suzanne Burns 2014.
Humans used to think the world was flat and also that the earth was at the centre of the Universe. Until recent times it was also widely believed that whales lived a similar lifespan to humans. However, not only has it been discovered that whales can live longer than us, they can live potentially up to 200 years of age!
The Bowhead whale has been instrumental in this theory being revised and staggering our perception of cetacean longevity. This whale is a right whale and has the largest mouth of any creature in existence. It is stocky and weighs in at a hefty 75 to 100 tonnes and can reach up to 20m in length.
This whale has been hunted traditionally by Inuits for food as well as been taken in serious numbers due to commercial whaling. It was initially thought that these whales lived to 60 to 70 years of age but two factors have radically changed this belief. A whale that was caught in Alaska in 2007 was found to have a very old harpoon point embedded between its neck and shoulder blade. On analysis it was discovered that the harpoon point was used in the 1880’s and fired from a bulky shoulder gun. This method was phased out shortly after by a more user friendly darting gun. The whale’s blubber protected it from the lethal effect of the harpoon point and went on to live a very long life. The second successful hunt of this whale and the involvement of scientists uncovered this spectacular secret.
The study also of the amino acids in the eyeballs of the whales over the past 10 years or so have also backed up this discovery. Various bowheads that have been hunted by Inuits in recent years have had their eyes studied and the whales have been successfully aged. Also six other whales have been found with similar harpoon points in their bodies since 2001.
The reason behind the whales longevity is purported to be due to their slow metabolic rate. They are large, slow moving creatures that live in very cold Arctic waters. Food can be scarce and their prey which comprises of plankton and krill can be hard to come by. This combination of extreme conditions and a challenging lifestyle has created a creature of exceptional merit and wonder. Call them what you may, Old Man of the Sea, or maybe the Nanas of the Ocean, but these are some seriously long lived whales. Long may they live!
Suzanne Burns 2014.
Underwater mammals in the waters of Azores solve their childcare issues in a spirit of mutual cooperation
By Philip Hoare, 10th July 2011. The Guardian.
Sperm whales may be the biggest predators that ever lived, but they have childcare issues too. The solution? A very big babysitter.
Here in the Azores, where I’ve spent the past two weeks diving with sperm whales off the island of Pico, a resident population of these remarkable mammals search for their main source of food: squid.
While the sperm whale is a natural submarine, able to dive a mile in depth for up to two hours, young calves still suckling their mother’s milk (which is 60% fat, with the consistency of cottage cheese) cannot undertake such deep plunges. So while their mothers hunt for food, calves are cared for communally in what amounts to a cetacean creche. This accompanying image, taken by the accomplished underwater photographer Andrew Sutton, shows whale altruism in action. Only one of the four juveniles with this large female is hers; she may not even be genetically connected to the others.
João Quaresma of Espaco Talassa, our Azorean skipper, told me that to see four young with one female is unusual. “Calves start to feed themselves at around three or four years,” he says, “but they’ve found whales up to the age of nine still suckling.” Studies by scientists such as Dr Hal Whitehead of Nova Scotia University have shown that sperm whales organise themselves in highly complex societies, communicating in discrete dialects of sonar clicks, passing on culture learned matrilineally. Such behaviour reinforces what we are beginning to discover about the intelligence of these whales, which possess the largest brain of any animal.
Operating under special licence from the Azorean government which determines strict care for the whales’ welfare, Andrew and I snorkelled with this group, watching them silently twisting and turning around one another in a physical expression of social solidarity. It was a salutary moment. In the 20th century, our species came close to driving the great whales to extinction. This week, the International Whaling Commission meets in Jersey to decide the fate of cetaceans around the world. Conservationists hope that they’ll make the right decisions. Sometimes whales need more than a babysitter to help them – even when she’s 12 metres long.
An adult male orca is an impressive beast and one not to be trifled with. Six tons of flesh, bone and blubber constitute this imposing dolphin. For all of his potential brute force and physical abilities, this male has a surprising secret, he is the ultimate Mummy’s boy.
He will live out his whole life in the family fold with his mother charting his course. Daddy is nowhere to be found. He was a romantic interlude many moons ago that lasted no more than an aquatic tryst. The young male progeny will go from a playful young buck to an impressive bull that will dwarf his mother. Adult females usually weigh between 3-4 tons, Their dorsal fins are less than half the size of the males prodigious 1.8 m (6 foot) fin which is so large that it provides a daunting spectacle on rapid approach.
Orca society is matriarchical and functions in a somewhat similar way to elephant society. The mother is the figurehead or matriarch of the family. She is responsible for keeping the family unit cohesive and for establishing feeding and migratory patterns. Her longevity and knowledge is pivotal in keeping the family together and for finding resources. Surprisingly, mothers tend to long outlive their sons and there is an interesting, albeit unfortunate reason for this.
In British Columbia, Canada there are 4 distinctive orca ecotypes, transient orcas that only eat mammals, resident orcas that only eat fish (one Northern and one Southern population) and offshore orcas that eat mainly sleeper sharks. For transient orcas in particular, there is a tendency to bioaccumulate large quantities of toxins in their body tissues. Being a top predator results in a toxic load accumulating in their bodies from the prey they are consuming over the course of their lives. When a female gets pregnant and gives birth, her first baby gets a particularly heavy hit from the toxins in its mother’s body. This is exacerbated by her milk, more toxins get passed unwittingly to the oblivious baby. This consequently diminishes a female’s toxic load over the course of her life each time she has a baby. Males are unable to offload this toxic burden so become more heavily loaded over time. Males tend to die younger as a result, with an average lifespan of 30 years, whereas wild females average 50 years, with some living into their 80’s and 90’s.
The male orca that has lived alongside his mother and siblings obviously has needs of his own but how are these satisfied when he is kept busy fishing for the family as well as babysitting? Luckily Mum has some other orcas that she knows who have some eligible lasses for her son to go and have some fun with. When the opportunity arises and one family happens to come across another then it is game on! When the male is sexually mature (usually from the age of 15) he will be free and ready to court a lucky lass from an unrelated family. Their encounter will be brief, he will go back to Mum and the rest of his family, as will she. If his conquest becomes pregnant, her family will help her raise her baby. The male that she tangled with will go back to his family and help raise any new babies his mum or sisters will give birth to.
The matriarch will go through menopause in her forties just like we do but will continue to live on and dote on her family and grandchildren. It has been found that even grown males who lose their mothers tend not to fare so well, and many even die after losing her. It is believed a combination of protection, companionship and assistance are important factors in maintaining the well being of the orca unit. And we thought our family bonds were strong?
Suzanne Burns 2014.
Humpback takes seal under its flipper to cheat predators
by Philip Hoare
The Guardian, Thursday 26 November 2009
There are plenty of stories of cetaceans saving humans. Indeed, Jonah was rescued by a whale when he was thrown overboard, and there have been tales of dolphins assisting swimmers in distress or shielding them from circling sharks.
Killer whales, however — themselves a species of dolphin — didn’t get their name for nothing. Early Basque whalers called them whale killers when they saw them attacking other whales. Hunting like a pack of wolves, orca know no fear. They’ll tear the throats from grey whale calves, and have even been known to take chunks out of sperm whales — the largest predators that ever lived.
But here’s a sight to gladden the eye. Earlier this year, Californian scientists Robert L Pitman and John W Durban sailed to the Antarctic in search of killer whales. They were looking for a possible new species, known to hunt Weddell seals — one of the plumpest of the pinnipeds (the suborder that includes seals and sea lions) — by washing them off ice floes with their wake.
That’s what was happening here — until a group of humpback whales arrived on the scene. Unlike orca, which are odontocetes or toothed whales, humpbacks are mysticetes, harmless leviathans with only baleen plates in their mouths.
Doubtless open-mouthed themselves, Pitman and Durban — along with a film crew from the BBC Natural History unit — watched as one seal, swept into the water by the orca, swam towards the humpbacks.
As the killer whales moved in, the plucky pinniped leapt on to the vast ribbed belly of a humpback, and nestled in the animal’s armpit. Not only that, but when a wave threatened to return the seal to danger, the humpback used its massive flipper (at five metres, the longest in the animal kingdom) to nudge it back on.
“Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe,” wrote the scientists. They believe the seal triggered a maternal defence mechanism in the humpbacks. Whatever the truth, it’s a heartening tale. But spare a thought for the orca. They’ve got kids to feed, too.