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.
The blue whale is the largest whale or creature ever known to have existed and we are blessed to have these mysterious behemoths still roaming our oceans. The females start having calves when they are between 5 and 10 years of age.
The mother will be pregnant with her baby for at least a year and on giving birth, her new calf will weigh a hefty 3 tons and will measure up to 8 m (25 feet) in length! This big baby also has some appetite on it and will consume the equivalent of a bathtub full of milk daily. This extremely rich and fatty milk (40-50% fat) has the consistency of cottage cheese. The well fed tyke will gain approx. 3.7 kilos an hour with this fat laden feasting.
The burgeoning baby will spend at least the first year of its life with mum and will leave her when large enough to defend itself.It is usually around 13 m when it is ready to venture out on its own.
Suzanne Burns 2014.
Mist rolled over the mountains this morning like dragon’s breath as we cruised out of Telegraph Cove. Within minutes of our trip we saw our first blow of a humpback whale while watching several mature and immature bald eagles. We were able to identify the two humpbacks with the help of our on board naturalist, Kyle who referenced the MERS Humpback ID catalog (www.mersociety.org).
The first whale identified was ‘Argonaut’ and the other was ‘Slits’. Argonaut is so named as it has what looks like a capital ‘A’ etched into the left underside of it’s fluke. Slits is a newcomer on the scene, having been first spotted last year. Both whales appeared to be ‘logging’ i.e. spending lots of surface time resting and short dives of 6-8 minutes.
At times Dall’s porpoises were all over the whales, leaping around them. The Dall’s porpoises were numerous and very active bow and wake riding the boat. It was quite the sight.
Rhinoceros auklets and murres were some of the other alluring avians we saw today. We even saw a small black tailed deer feeding high on the edge of a cliff.
Our afternoon sailing was a glorious combination of moody fog and brilliant sunshine with the animals providing us with tantalising glimpses into their worlds. Dall’s porpoises were repeat offenders and came along wake riding the Lukwa. The mist rolled in again and we initially tried to find ‘whales by braille’. By this, we took our time and listened carefully to the characteristic resonant sound the humpbacks make when they breathe on the surface.
The fog, thankfully, was not meant to be. We made our way towards the ever increasing blue and entered Blackney Pass. The water whirled and fumed as we sailed through, churning up all sorts of small creatures in it’s fury. Two whales were found to be capitalizing on this bounty, feeding furiously in the maelstrom. The two seen were identified by Sophia our naturalist as ‘KC’ and ‘Guardian’. KC had been spotted approx.40km south yesterday so it made it all the more special to see this whale. We spent an hour here watching these behemoths weave their way through this whirlpool. An unexpected guest also joined the goodness and happened to be a minke whale which is known as ‘Bolt’. Bolt has been seen in this area since 2000.
Our guests were thrilled to see such a prolonged and wonderful sight of these whales feeding and diving. One couple called Phil and Tania from Gloucester, England fulfilled their dreams by seeing these gentle giants wild and free. Glaucous winged gulls, young and older sat and flew over the riffled water, unperturbed by all the activity around them.
At Weynton Island, a couple of harbour seals were precariously balanced on rocks. As we made our way back towards home, the wildlife kicked off in earnes. Two Steller sea lions roared in the kelp, as some beautiful bald eagles flew above them. Two more humpbacks appeared close by, providing us with ample opportunities to observe and photograph them. Slits was one of the two seen again. We wrapped up our trip with a glorious cruise back to port. Life is good!
photo credit: NOAA/Vancouver Aquarium. Two killer whales share a moment, filmed by a remote controlled vehicle.
Even while being kept at a distance where it would not disturb the whales, the hexacopter took images so sharp it is possible to tell that some of the whales are pregnant.
The footage they took is disturbing. Some of the Northern resident orcas they tracked are lacking in body fat and in very poor condition. While they were tracking one, it failed to surface and appears to have died. While there could be many causes of death, the researchers are concerned that the whales in the area are affected by declines in the Chinook salmon population, one of their main food sources.
One particularly intriguing aspect was the observation that A46, the brother of the whale that died, called extensively after losing his sibling. NOAA’s John Durban speculates he may still have been seeking his lost brother, or telling the rest of the pod the sad news.
However, it’s not all grim times for the whales. The scientists managed to get the photo above of two orcas nuzzling (or maybe playfully head-butting) each other. Orcas spend their entire lives in family pods, which in some cases can be an entire century.
My contribution: One of my photos of the researchers is included in this film clip.