Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale
Help was fortunately close at hand for a humpback whale that found itself entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off Nanaimo yesterday.
Paul Cottrell, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Marine Mammal Response Program coordinator, said fisheries officers happened to be working just off Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10, following up on reports of suspected whale entanglements, when an emergency call came in from a commercial fishing vessel just five minutes away that had discovered an adult humpback whale entangled in its prawn trap line.
Cottrell was linked in to the call and advised crews at the scene to stay back and monitor the situation.
The animal, an adult estimated at about 12 metres long, had become so entangled it was anchored in place, possibly for as long as 24 hours, when it was discovered.
“It was a 50-string trap line with anchors on either end on 3,000 feet of rope, so there was a lot of gear that was holding this guy down, a lot of weight,” Cottrell said.
The marine mammal response boat and team rushed to the scene from the mainland and started assessing the situation with an aerial drone and remote-control submersibles. The commercial fisher provided information about the equipment that ensnared the whale.
“We don’t go in and cut things until we know exactly the gear configuration because you can make things worse if you cut the wrong line and also it can hurt the animal, so we took our time,” Cottrell said.
The whole operation took about six hours, including about four hours to disentangle the whale, which had the rope wrapped about four times around its tail.
“The rope that’s used is Polysteel. It’s nasty stuff and it’s fairly abrasive and the animal had injuries on the dorsal side, on the dorsal ridge, from I think when it became entangled … and it was just anchored in place,” Cottrell said. “Its tail stock was down and the animal was just breathing, maybe every five to 10 minutes, just holding position and trying to breathe. It was something.”https://blackpress.tv/embed/47852/Rescuers_free_humpback_anchored_down_by_prawn_traps_near_Nanaimo
With the assessment done, Cottrell’s team was able to move in and cut the rope from around the whale’s tail as well as some loose lines and then they watched the animal for about 30 minutes.
“When it was freed … it took it a while to get back the tail fluke movement pattern, so it was slowly moving and we were just making sure all the gear was off,” Cottrell said. “There was one small piece of loose rope that’s left that we’re going to be monitoring, but there’s no tension on it and we believe it’s around the left pectoral fin. So, that’s something we’re going to watch over time, but it’s not considered life-threatening and it was loose, so we’re almost certain it will fall off on its own … By the end of about an hour after it was acting normally again and was moving on. It was fantastic.”
Cottrell said there are a large number of humpbacks in the area that have returned to the Salish Sea. The whales winter in Mexico and around Hawaii and return to the Salish Sea in the summer to feed on shrimp and other food sources. Last year about 30 whales returned, but a count for this year hasn’t been completed yet.
Humpback populations have been recovering after they were nearly hunted to extinction before whaling was halted in Canada in 1959.
The whale rescued Thursday has not been identified and its sex is unknown. That information will be gathered later with further observations.
“It couldn’t have worked out better,” Cottrell said. “I’m just still so happy.”
What’s this sperm whale saying? (Image credit: Reinhard Dirscherl via Getty Images)
Sperm whales are among the loudest living animals on the planet, producing creaking, knocking and staccato clicking sounds to communicate with other whales that are a few feet to even a few hundred miles away.
This symphony of patterned clicks, known as codas, might be sophisticated enough to qualify as a full-fledged language. But will humans ever understand what these cetaceans are saying?
The answer is maybe, but first researchers have to collect and analyze an unprecedented number of sperm whale communications, researchers told Live Science.
With brains six times larger than ours, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have intricate social structures and spend much of their time socializing and exchanging codas. These messages can be as brief as 10 seconds, or last over half an hour. In fact, “The complexity and duration of whale vocalizations suggest that they are at least in principle capable of exhibiting a more complex grammar” than other nonhuman animals, according to an April 2021 paper about sperm whales posted to the preprint server arXiv.org.
This paper, by a cross-disciplinary project known as CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), outlines a plan to decode sperm whale vocalizations, first by collecting recordings of sperm whales, and then by using machine learning to try to decode the sequences of clicks these fellow mammals use to communicate. CETI chose to study sperm whales over other whales because their clicks have an almost Morse code-like structure, which artificial intelligence (AI) might have an easier time analyzing.
Breaching the surface
The little that humans do know about sperm whales has all been learned quite recently. It was only in the 1950s that we noted they made sounds, and it wasn’t known that they were using those sounds to communicate until the 1970s, according to the new research posted by CETI.
This clicking appears to serve a dual purpose. Sperm whales can dive to depths of 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), or three times deeper than nuclear submarines, according to the Woods Holes Oceanographic Institution. Because it is pitch black at these depths, they have evolved to seek out squid and other marine creatures by using clicks for echolocation, a type of sonar. This same clicking mechanism is also used in their social vocalizations, although the communication clicks are more tightly packed, according to the CETI paper.
Figuring out even this much has been challenging, as sperm whales have “been so hard for humans to study for so many years,” David Gruber, a marine biologist and CETI project leader, told Live Science. But now, “we actually do have the tools to be able to look at this more in depth in a way that we haven’t been able to before.” Those tools include AI, robotics and drones, he said.
Pratyusha Sharma, a data science researcher for CETI and a doctoral candidate in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, told Live Science more about recent developments in artificial intelligence and language models, such as GPT-3, which uses deep learning to construct human-like text or stories on command, and last year took the AI community by storm. Scientists hope these same methods could be applied to the vocalizations of sperm whales, she said. The only problem: these methods have a voracious appetite for data.
The CETI project currently has recordings of about 100,000 sperm whale clicks, painstakingly gathered by marine biologists over many years, but the machine-learning algorithms might need somewhere in the vicinity of 4 billion. To bridge this gap, CETI is setting up numerous automated channels for collecting recordings from sperm whales. These include underwater microphones placed in waters frequented by sperm whales, microphones that can be dropped by eagle-eyed airborne drones as soon as they spot a pod of sperm whales congregating at the surface, and even robotic fish that can follow and listen to whales unobtrusively from a distance.
But even with all this data, will we be able to decipher it? Many of the machine-learning algorithms have found audio more difficult to analyze than text. For instance, it might be challenging to parse apart where one word begins and ends. As Sharma explained, “Suppose there’s a word ‘umbrella.’ Is ‘um’ the word or is it ‘umbrell’ or is it ‘umbrella’?” The barriers between spoken words are more ambiguous and less regular, and patterns may therefore require more data to suss out.
That’s not the only difficulty CETI will face. “Whether someone comes from let’s say Japan or from the U.S. or from wherever, the worlds we talk about are very similar; we talk about people, we talk about their actions,” Sharma said. “But the worlds these whales live in are very different, right? And the behaviors are very different.”RELATED MYSTERIES
What’s more, sperm whales are known to have dialects, according to a 2016 study in the journal Royal Society Open Science, which analyzed codas from nine sperm whale groups in the Caribbean for six years.
But these difficulties are also what make the project so worthwhile. What exactly one sperm whale says to another remains as dark and murky as the waters they swim in, but this mystery makes any answers CETI finds all the more intriguing. As Gruber put it, “We learn so much when we try to view the world from the perspective of the other.”
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service approach a young North Atlantic right whale in order to disentangle it. New research shows whales with severe entanglements in rope and fishing gear are experiencing stunted growth, and body lengths have been decreasing since 1981.NOAA News Archive 011811
North Atlantic right whales now grow smaller than they did 40 years ago, and new research suggests a leading cause is the damage human activity inflicts on the critically endangered mammals.
The findings, published today in the journal Current Biology, reveal that when fully grown, a North Atlantic right whale born today would be expected to be about one meter shorter than a whale born in 1980. Currently, full-grown members of the species average 13 to 14 meters in length (43 to 46 feet).
“The first inkling that we had came from the folks who were collecting the data in the field, where, as the story goes, they saw what looked to be a really young whale, a calf, or maybe one- or two-year-old,” said Joshua Stewart, a postdoctoral researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Mammal and Turtle Division and lead author of the new study. “But it turns out that they were actually 5-year-old or 10-year-old whales that were smaller than a typical 2-year-old.”
The researchers used high-resolution aerial photographs to track size and body condition over time of 129 right whales. There are only about 366 North Atlantic right whales in existence now, compared to 481 in 2011, the known high for the population in recent years. Their numbers were much higher before commercial whaling brought them to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s. The mammals’ high fat content and buoyancy after death led to their name: whalers called them the “right whales” to kill.
A photo illustration demonstrates how much shorter a North Atlantic right whale born in recent years would be compared to one born years earlier. In each image, the outline shows how long researchers expected each whale to be had it been born in 1981. “It’s just astonishing,” said Joshua Stewart, lead author on the paper.Madeline Wukusick
The research, with contributions from scientists with the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Oregon State University, indicated that a prime reason for the animals’ recent stunted growth is entanglement in rope and fishing gear.
Updated 1:52 PM ET, Wed May 12, 2021HMAS Sydney off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, last year.
(CNN)Two dead endangered whales were dislodged from the hull of an Australian destroyer after the warship docked in San Diego last weekend, according to the Royal Australian Navy.The whales were found near HMAS Sydney, which berthed in Naval Base San Diego, the principal home port of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet.”The Navy takes marine mammal safety seriously and is disheartened this incident occurred,” a statement from the Australian navy said.
The Australian and US navies — along with the US NOAA Fisheries, which oversees marine resources — were investigating, the statement said.
CNN affiliate 10News in San Diego reported the dead mammals were fin whales, the world’s second-largest whale species, behind only blue whales. One was 65 feet (about 20 meters) long and the other about 25 feet (7.6 meters), the report said.
A NOAA Fisheries fact sheet on fin whales lists them as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, with a population of about 3,200 off the US West Coast. The whales were once hunted extensively, but today their biggest threat is being struck by a ship, the fact sheet says.HMAS Sydney is a 481-foot (146.7-meter) guided-missile destroyer with a 7,000-ton displacement, according to the Australian navy. The ship’s hull extends 23.6 feet (7.2 meters) below the waterline.
It’s one of the newest ships in the Australian fleet, commissioned just a year ago.The ship steamed into San Diego on Saturday after testing its combat systems in an exercise off the California coast, according to a tweet from the Australian navy.Whale strikes by naval vessels are rare, said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain.”Whales can hear ships from miles away and generally avoid ships using mid-frequency and high-powered low frequency sonars because it bothers their hearing,” Schuster said.
Low-frequency sonar can confuse whales in shallower waters, Schuster said — but the Australian ship is equipped with a high-frequency sonar. However, a NOAA Fisheries report on whale strikes says they can occur as the whales feed and migrate in coastal waters, especially in heavy shipping lanes like those off Southern California.
Biologists tracking the two-year-old whale dubbed “Wally” believe the animal became lost and swam into the Atlantic ocean from the Arctic.
They say global warming has opened up northern routes.
The whale is swimming about 50 to 60 miles per day and is approaching the Spanish coast.
A gray whale has found itself thousands of miles from its natural habitat in the Pacific ocean and is currently making its way through the Mediterranean where it’s struggling to find food.
Biologists tracking the two-year-old whale dubbed “Wally” believe the animal became lost and swam into the Atlantic ocean from the Arctic as global warming has opened up northern routes, according to Reuters. Wally likely swam through the Gibraltar Strait down the Moroccan coast and made his way to France.
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The roughly 26-foot whale is losing weight due to the lack of invertebrates he typically feasts on in the depths of the Pacific ocean.
“We are very worried about his future, as his fat, which is his fuel to travel, has gone down a lot. He is exhausted and just skin over bones. We have not seen him eat since we started tracking him,” Eric Hansen, head of the state biodiversity agency in southern France, told Reuters.
The whale is swimming about 50 to 60 miles per day and is approaching the Spanish coast. Biologists say Wally was caught in a fishing net but managed to escape, and they’re concerned about heavy shipping in the Gibraltar Strait.
“It is trying to enter harbors, as if to find a way out. Its strategy should work and we hope it can make its way back to Gibraltar in about a week,” Hansen told Reuters.
After several minutes Camacho spies his target: a heart-shaped cloud of ocean spray erupting from the water. Suddenly an adult whale thrusts its tapered head straight through the surface, pausing for five long seconds before disappearing under the waves.
Encounters like these have for decades drawn tourists to this marshy stretch of Mexico, where each winter thousands of Eastern Pacific gray whales arrive from Alaska’s Arctic. Here the adults mate, and females give birth and rear their young in a network of tranquil lagoons.
But over the last three years, Camacho and others have noticed ominous changes. The whales are arriving in the estuary later in the year, and many appear malnourished, the jagged outline of vertebrae visible on their typically fatty backs. More whales than usual have been washing up dead along the shore.
Perhaps most concerning is the dramatic drop in births. On a normal early February morning like this one, Camacho would expect to see several pairs of mothers and calves. Today he spies only adults.
The changes observed in Mexico are evidence of a more widespread phenomenon, one brought to public attention in 2019 and 2020, when strandings of gray whales along the Pacific coast of North America surged dramatically. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an “unusual mortality event” and launched an investigation into the causes.
Between 2016 and 2020, the estimated population of eastern North Pacific gray whales plummeted by nearly a quarter, from almost 27,000 individuals to around 20,500. The origins of the decline are so far a mystery. Much of the early research points to climate change, which is rapidly warming the Arctic Ocean and may be reducing the quantity or quality of whales’ food supply. But scientists can’t rule out other factors, including the possibility that the whale population grew too large and is simply correcting itself.
Camacho has spent his entire life in Puerto Adolfo López Mateos, a dusty town of 2,000 five hours north of Cabo San Lucas. Living alongside a shallow lagoon that is home to dolphins, egrets, and pelicans, residents are closely connected to nature. Ospreys nest atop telephone poles, and coyotes slink down dirt streets, waiting for fishermen to dock with their daily catch.
But residents regard the whales with special reverence. A gray whale sculpture stands in front of the Catholic church, and whale murals adorn restaurants and the elementary school. Locals say that because they are born here, gray whales are Mexican. Each winter, the village celebrates their homecoming with a three-day festival, including concerts and a beauty pageant.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, foreign whalers crowded these lagoons in search of blubber for producing lamp oil. Whalers had already, in the 1700s, hunted to extinction a separate stock of gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean. But with the rise of petroleum as lamp fuel, the establishment of the International Whaling Commission in the 1940s, and passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the eastern North Pacific gray was able to bounce back.
While working as a fisherman April through December, Camacho brings in on average $170 a week. When the whales arrive, he can earn six times as much guiding for Pirata Tours, the company founded by his grandfather four decades ago.
Gallery: The most terrifying creatures in the sea (Espresso)
Omar García Castañeda is braced on the bow of a bumping motorboat, binoculars pressed to his face and a safety rope looped around his waist. It’s a blustery day to be out on the water, but time is precious: The gray whales inhabit their breeding grounds for about three months each year, and García and his colleagues must count and photograph as many of them as possible.
The marine biologists are part of the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program, a binational research group that has been monitoring whales along the Baja coast since 2007. Each year the group compiles photo catalogues of whales that allow them to track the movements of individuals, identified by their distinctive patterns of barnacles and scars. Crucially, in recent years the photographs have also been used to evaluate whale health.
The cetaceans are so huge—a healthy gray is 90,000 pounds and up to 50 feet long—that it can be difficult to determine from a boat deck whether they are malnourished. But photographs can reveal nuances: Do the whales have thick, rounded backs or a depression behind their heads? Are their scapulae protruding?
During the program’s first decade, the proportion of single adult whales deemed to be in poor body condition had remained steady, at around 6 percent. But that number began to rise in 2018. By 2020, it had hit 30 percent.
Drone photography confirmed the trend: between 2017 and 2020, a growing percentage of whales were much leaner than they should be.
All along their migration route, whales were stranding in record numbers. In 2019, 214 gray whales were found dead, including 122 in the United States—four times the nation’s annual average over the previous 18 years. Scientists believe that for each whale found on land, another five die at sea.
“We saw this coming, but there was nothing we could do about it,” says Steven Swartz, co-director of the Laguna San Ignacio program.
Necropsies—post-mortem exams on animals—are particularly difficult to conduct on whales because they often wash up on remote beaches, and they decompose rapidly. In a typical year, researchers at the Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, might necropsy between one and three gray whales, which don’t typically enter San Francisco Bay while migrating. But in 2019, the center examined 13.
Pádraig Duignan, the center’s chief pathologist, speculates that whales veered off their usual route and entered the bay because they were hungry and looking for food. Necropsies revealed around half the whales were malnourished, with very low stores of fat around their hearts and other organs. Their entry into the bay made them particularly susceptible to boat traffic: Most of the other whales examined had succumbed to ship and ferry strikes.
In 2020, 174 gray whales washed up along the migration route. But Covid-19 restrictions limited researchers’ ability to perform necropsies. The Marine Mammal Center completed just one.
Duignan didn’t know if whales were dying because of food shortages, disease, or possibly pollution, their bodies contaminated by the ingestion of microplastics. But it was clear, he said, that they were leaving the Arctic in a poor nutritional state. “They are not migrating with enough food ‘on board.’”
The starvation hypothesis has shifted investigators’ focus to Alaska’s Chukchi and Bering Seas, where whales binge during the summer and fall on bottom-dwelling shrimp-like amphipods, packing on stores of blubber for their eventual migration back south.
The Arctic seas, though, are changing. A warming climate means less sea ice, which disrupts the production of algae, which in turn feed amphipods. Could a shrinking ice cap be reducing the whales’ food supply?
That would be the simplest answer, but it is complicated by the fact that the gray whale population suffered another dramatic die-off in 1999 and 2000, a period when Arctic ice was far more abundant. Then, just like today, gray whales stranded up and down the coast, and scientists reported a 23 percent drop—from 21,000 whales in 1997 to 16,000 in 2000.
The whale population didn’t just recover after that event, it boomed, reaching 27,000 individuals in 2016.
Frances Gulland, who helped lead the NOAA team investigating the first die-off, doesn’t believe that climate change alone can explain two mass-casualty events two decades apart.
“Why was there 20 years between these die-off events when we know the changes in the Arctic have been continual?” the marine mammal veterinarian says. “It’s common sense that there must be problems with their feeding, and we also know that there are massive changes in the Arctic. But how those changes are connected is difficult to say.”
Others suggest that the gray whale population simply hit some sort of carrying capacity, then corrected itself—a process that may now be repeating.
Many believe it may be a combination of factors.
“I think we’re seeing an interaction of events,” says John Calambokidis, a biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective and with NOAA’s Unusual Mortality Event working group. An expanding population of whales would mean more competition for food. Paired with some other factor that may have triggered a decline in available prey—such as dramatic changes in the Arctic environment—starvation and death could follow.
In recent years, more gray whales have been veering a hundred miles off their migratory path and into Washington’s Puget Sound, where Calambokidis works, in search of food. It’s a sign that the whales are hungry, the researcher says, but it’s also a sign of their resilience. Whales can pack on serious weight in just a few weeks—not by eating amphipods on the ocean floor but by feasting in ghost shrimp beds in shallow parts of the sound.
Calambokidis is hopeful that the gray whale population will recover, just as it did after commercial whaling and after the die-offs of 1999 and 2000. “Maybe gray whales are this adaptive because they’ve had to be,” he said.
A glimpse of the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic, which brought tourism in López Mateos to a near standstill, has given the community a sense of what life would be like without whales. Guides at the town’s impressive modern pier spend much of their time these days listening to cumbia music and cracking jokes as they wait for customers. This year’s Gray Whale Festival was canceled.
Fernando Rojas Rodriguez, 56, came here in 1990 in search of work. The whale business helped him put his four children through school. Now he worries—about the future of tourism during a global pandemic and about the health of the whales.
It is too early to say how strandings in 2021 will compare to the previous two years. Early reports from scientists working in Baja this season showed high rates of skinny whales and low numbers of mothers and calves.
But on a recent morning, Rojas gets lucky. A woman and her daughter, tourists from Arizona, pull up in their rental car and ask to go out on the water.
As Rojas steers them slowly across the lagoon in his turquoise fishing boat, pods of dolphins arc in the distance, and pelicans cut through the moist air. And then he sees it: a cloud of mist erupting from a blowhole. Then another smaller spray shoots up next to the first.
Rojas cuts the engine. “It’s a mother and her calf,” he says excitedly.
The baby, which he estimates is about a week old, is already the length of a large sedan. It darts toward the boat with a toddler-like curiosity, gliding along the bobbing vessel before diving down and emerging on the other side. Rojas tells the tourists to splash their hands in the water. The calf comes closer, and for a brief moment the daughter caresses its smooth, slate-gray skin.
A few minutes later, the mother and calf peel off. The baby has feeding to do, and the mother, crucial weeks of child-rearing. Within a month or so they’ll set out on their daunting journey north. Rojas hopes they will make it, and that later in the year they will find their way back.
“Before Brian started this, he’d seen what he thought was evidence of real culture,” Cameron says. “Not just intelligence and not just that which natural selection has created.” (Read about James Cameron’s latest exploration project.)
Skerry’s work in photography and video makes it clear that different species have distinct ways of communicating and hunting. Also a National Geographic Explorer, Skerry gets incredibly close to these majestic creatures, such as that female orca. She had just stunned a stingray to feed her family but instead presents it to him.
Astonishment is audible in Weaver’s voice as we see, for the first time, a sperm whale nurse her calf, and when 2,000 belugas converge in Canada’s Cunningham Inlet for a raucous reunion.
Weaver typically narrates documentaries from a studio. During the pandemic, however, her New York City apartment had to do. Construction was being done just outside her building, so Weaver limited recordings to weekends, and, with her assistant, crafted makeshift sound buffers.
A longtime environmentalist, Weaver grew up near Long Island Sound and always loved the water. Cameron, who directed Weaver in Aliens and the Avatar movies, persuaded her to learn scuba diving. She recalls an amazing night dive. “We lay on the floor of the sea, and these beautiful manta rays glided right above us.”
Cameron’s enchantment with the aquatic world only grew with Secrets of the Whales. Well-versed in marine life, the Oscar-winning director and producer has logged thousands of hours underwater, even discovered dozens of species. Still, Cameron was enthralled by what Skerry’s film captured, such as the songs of humpback whales.
Watching this series may inspire viewers the way Jacques Cousteau did for Cameron and Skerry. The legendary underwater explorer was a TV staple when both were kids. Cousteau’s adventures encouraged them, and both learned to scuba dive at local YMCAs, which helped form their careers.
Quick to deflect credit for Secrets of the Whales, Cameron calls himself the “narrative guru,” there to frame the documentaries dramatically. These stories touch us because they’re universal: birth and death, playing and hunting, teaching and learning.
“There’s an intimacy to the way the camera got in there and the way Brian got in there with these animals,” Cameron says. “And I think there’s an emotional intimacy to the way she [Sigourney] describes what you’re seeing.”
“This one was a game-changer”
Skerry says the idea for this project, which took him to 24 locations worldwide, was percolating for a decade.
“I was looking for that narrative, and I looked for a number of things in a number of scientific papers,” Skerry says. “A big part of my career is on conservation. This one was a game-changer.” Science was revealing what could be called human traits in whales. With that, he says, “we might get people to see the oceans in a different way.”
He worked with National Geographic to create a magazine article that’s the cover story for the May issue, the television series, and a book. After decades of photographing marine life, logging more than 10,000 hours underwater, he knows what works, and how working with whales is different.
With most of his underwater photography, Skerry scuba dives. “With whales, scuba doesn’t work—the bubbles scare the whales,” he says. For this project, “95 percent of what I was doing is known as free diving.” It’s just a mask, snorkel, fins, and a wet suit. “You take a deep breath and maybe stay underwater for a couple of minutes.”
Sometimes whales appear to pose for him. Even after living this for three years, Skerry remains gobsmacked by his experiences.
The moment that stands out for him is “the newborn nursing from its mom,” he says, his voice catching with emotion. “I made the first picture of a sperm whale calf nursing.”
Like any mother doting on her newborn, it’s a tender scene. Weaver recognizes why we’re able to relate.
“To be able to move around in the water so close to the mothers and the babies and to do it in such a way as to never feel we are intruding on the whales or harming them,” she says. “I just feel the spirit this was shot in is a great gift to us because it is so respectful and admiring.”
Weaver reflects on how her narrator role evolved as the series progressed. “I was less a narrator of scientific facts—I was more of a storyteller. And it was as if I were saying, Come with me! I know this family I want to introduce you to,” she says. The emphasis was on “bringing the viewer along with me. The images are so amazing you want to present it in a matter-of-fact way.”
A necropsy of the whale at Muir Beach revealed significant bruising and hemorrhaging to muscle around the jaw and neck vertebrae consistent with blunt force trauma due to ship strike. Experts noted the whale was in good body condition based on the blubber layer and internal fat levels. It is still uncertain how the other three whales died, or if starvation was behind their deaths.
“It’s alarming to respond to four dead gray whales in just over a week because it really puts into perspective the current challenges faced by this species,” said Dr Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center (MMC).
In 2019, the MMC was involved in looking into why 13 dead whales washed up ion the Bay Area. The National Park Service reported the year previously that a “large number” of dead whales were being found.
Whales are threatened by a variety of human interventions, including entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. The climate crisis is heating up and acidifying the ocean, altering the availability of prey.
Biologists have reported several recent cases of malnutrition in gray whales in the region. Nearly one in four gray whales migrating along the US west coast has died since the last recorded population surveys in 2015 and 2016, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The MMC said losses could be even greater due to the limited boat and aerial surveys taken during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Each winter, the whales migrate 10,000 miles to Mexican waters, where they mate and birth calves near the coast of Baja California. They head back north and stay off the coast of California in spring and summer to feed on anchovies, sardines and krill before continuing on their northerly migration to cool, food-rich Arctic waters.
“This many dead whales in a week is shocking, especially because these animals are the tip of the iceberg,” said Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. Experts estimate the washed-up whales represent just 10% of the total dead, with the rest sinking into the sea unnoticed by humans.
The marine biologist Jay Barlow likes to say that he went looking for the last of the Ice Age mastodons and instead bumped into a unicorn. It’s a land-based metaphor to help us, a landlubbing species, make sense of what he witnessed late last year, though in fact the mystery unfolded entirely out of sight of land.
In 2014, a team of scientists described acoustic recordings taken far off the coast of California that they suspected were the clicks and buzzes of the Perrin’s beaked whale, the mastodon in Barlow’s metaphor. Though they include 23 known species ranging in size from the pygmy beaked whale, which is about as long as a small hatchback, to the Baird’s beaked whale, which can be nearly the scale of a cargo trailer, beaked whales as a group have remained overlooked cousins of the dolphins and great whales to the present day. Perrin’s beaked whales were among the most obscure of the obscure. Known only from a few carcasses washed ashore in California, they had never been documented alive in the wild.
Four years after those first recordings, acoustic data collected during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey captured the same noise pattern. This time it was concentrated around a nameless, undersea ridgetop in the open Pacific Ocean—the middle of nowhere, really—located about 350 kilometers south of the United States–Mexico border. “It was really abundant there,” Barlow, who specializes in marine mammals, told me. “We thought, well, this is good news, maybe we found a spot where the density of the Perrin’s beaked whale is high enough that we might actually have a chance to be the first people to see them.”
It took awhile to put together an expedition during a pandemic year. But on November 15, 2020, a search team co-led by Barlow, the U.S. Navy marine researcher Elizabeth Henderson, and Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a scientist with the agency responsible for protected areas in Mexico, set sail from a port on the Baja Peninsula. They were aboard a sailboat provided and crewed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as part of a research campaign called Operation Divina Guadalupe—a reference to the image of the Virgin Mary that many Mexicans turn to when they need a miracle.
Active surveying for whales began on the second day at sea; the team saw only a few dolphins. By first light on the third day, the boat was floating nearly a kilometer above the flanks of the unnamed submarine peak where NOAA’s recordings had been made. As a general rule, beaked whales are hard to spot: They slip to the surface rather than surge to it, release no “Thar she blows” puff of exhaled mist, and can easily be hidden by waves kicked up from a gentle breeze. This day, however, the sea was so calm that, looking over the rails of the boat, the crew could see their reflections. “Beaked-whale weather,” Barlow said.
The search started at 6 a.m., with the sun still below the horizon. Eight minutes later, three beaked whales surfaced so close that the scientists didn’t even need to lift their binoculars to see them.
If beaked whales can be hard to see, they are even more difficult to identify. Most look like oversize, thuggish dolphins: They’re often described as cigar shaped, but if so, the cigar is a perfecto, thick through the middle and tapering to the tip and tail. They mainly come in muted tones of gray-brown to blue, often with stripes or polka dots. Neither pattern is as charming as it sounds. The stripes are thought to be scars from underwater battles between males. The polka dots are scars left by the cookiecutter shark, a thalassophobia-inducing creature with jaws designed to remove round plugs of flesh. They sometimes punch permanent holes through beaked whales’ fins.
Telling beaked-whale species apart often comes down to the teeth, a task complicated by the fact that, for the most part, beaked whales are toothless. In nearly all cases, only the males have visible teeth, and usually just one on each side of the lower jaw. The position of these teeth is often distinctive, and their form can be, too: Some resemble ginkgo leaves, others the oblong flensing spades used by 19th-century whalers. The tusks of the strap-toothed whale grow up and across the snout, like a bone ribbon that ties the mouth nearly shut. This apparently causes no problems, because beaked whales—keeping it weird—neither bite nor chew their food. They are suction feeders, drinking in their meals rather than eating them, and they’re also teuthivorous, meaning they primarily eat squid. To do so through a narrower mouth opening only makes the process akin to slurping up noodle soup without cutlery.
When the beaked whales surfaced near the Sea Shepherd boat, the scientists scrambled to make observations, take photographs, and deploy acoustic-recording buoys: Beaked whales are notoriously skittish. Yet these whales lingered for more than an hour, seemingly as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about them. A diver even managed to record some underwater video. Ticking through observations of the whales’ size, coloration, and head shape, the team was soon confident that they weren’t looking at any of the area’s better-known species. “We assumed that these would be Perrin’s beaked whale,” Barlow said. They had found the last mastodons, deep in their hidden valley.
A photograph taken by Henderson seemed to clinch the case. Male Perrin’s beaked whales have their teeth near the tip of the beak, or rostrum, and the image appeared to show just that. On closer inspection, however, the “teeth” turned out to be glints of sunshine. When other photos seemed to show teeth near the midpoint of the jaw, the hope that they had seen Perrin’s beaked whales began to slip away.
“I didn’t want to believe it at the time,” Barlow said. They began to compare their images and audio to descriptions of every other species of beaked whale, trying to make a match. At last, another possibility dawned: that what they had witnessed was not the never-before-seen-alive Perrin’s beaked whale, but a new species entirely. In other words, the metaphorical unicorn: a kind of beaked whale—in this case, an animal twice the size of a bottlenose dolphin and as heavy as a plow-pulling horse—that had somehow gone unnoticed, never known to be seen dead or alive by human eyes. “We were all giddy,” Henderson told me. “There might have been some dancing.”
Back onshore, the news was welcomed as a sign that, just possibly, the human race has not yet left its gaudy thumbprint everywhere. The excitement was heightened by the fact that it was the second year in a row that such a “unicorn” had been reported: In 2019, scientists announced that what had always been considered a smaller, darker variety of the Baird’s beaked whale—one of the best known of the little-known family of beaked whales—was in fact a different species hiding in its cousin’s shadow. That such large animals could remain out of sight on a planet teeming with people and our panopticon technologies into the third decade of the 21st century seemed almost beyond belief.
Whales as a whole are apostates. Life on our planet began in the water and moved onto the land, an evolution that is often represented—in graphics that show fish growing legs and ending up as human beings—as progress. Yet the cetaceans, that grouping of creatures that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises, reversed the trend. They came ashore, took a look around—and returned to the sea, turning their backs on what would become the human dominion.
Beaked whales were the most emphatic about it. If you have never heard of beaked whales before now, rest assured you are not alone. Other cetaceans appear in the Bible, were carved into rock more than 5,000 years ago in Norway, turn up on fourth-century bas-reliefs. I found a single possible reference to a beaked whale in early art: a playful glass sculpture from Greece that depicts a cetacean with a long, birdlike beak but without the tall fin of a dolphin. Coastal cultures have always known about beaked whales, from animals stranded onshore or glimpsed at sea, but such events were probably as uncommon in antiquity as they are today. The most consistent impression the whales have left on humans is that their flesh and blubber make for dubious eating; a 13th-century Icelandic text gives fair warning that the rendered fat “runs right through” not only humans “or any other animal,” but even vessels made of wood or horn.
In 1823, the French zoologist Georges Cuvier examined the skull of an unknown sea creature and concluded that it was the fossilized remains of an extinct cetacean; the Cuvier’s beaked whale is now believed to be the most widespread of the beaked whales, ranging nearly throughout the world’s oceans. The British scientist William Flower, one of the first people who might fairly be described as anything like a beaked-whale expert, had the following to say in 1872: “Their very presence in the ocean seems to pass unnoticed and unsuspected by voyagers, and even by those whose special occupation is the pursuit and capture of various better known and more abundant cetaceans.” In other words, beaked whales have, with few exceptions, remained at such a remove from human existence that we have never made a habit of hunting and killing them.
Much of our knowledge of beaked whales is still emerging from a vast memento mori of bones and tissues gathered from stranded specimens and housed in the world’s museums. Chris Stinson, a curatorial assistant at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, is a beaked-whale aficionado (“I just like things that nobody knows anything about,” he told me) and once spent 12 days on a whale survey off Canada’s west coast, during which he logged just about every kind of whale out there—except beaked whales. The closest he has come to an encounter with them is still the museum’s collection of skeletal remains.
He pulled out 10 sets of bones for me. Lifting a Hubbs’ beaked whale skull, it was humbling to think that I could dedicate the rest of my life to seeing the species alive in the wild, and would probably fail. (Humankind’s only truly close encounter with living Hubbs’ whales involved two stranded juveniles who were placed in captivity in a California oceanarium 30 years ago; both died in less than a month.) The skull was an awkward armload. Bizarrely, its size, shape, and long, narrow bill brought to mind the head of Big Bird from Sesame Street, but with none of bird-bone’s lightness: It had heft and density. Without Stinson’s help, I would never have guessed where the eye socket was, and would not have been sure which side was up or down.
“You can’t even tell it’s a skull, really,” Stinson said. “Back in 1997, when I first moved to the West Coast, if I had seen one of these washed up on a beach, I would have thought it was some kind of crazy alien.”
Ironically for animals so little known to us, many beaked whales are named after people—white men, to be exact. (One exception is Deraniyagala’s beaked whale, identified in 1963 from a carcass examined by Paul Deraniyagala, director of the national museums of what is now Sri Lanka.) Most of these men likely never saw a beaked whale alive. The first field studies didn’t begin until the late 1980s, when Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia began to make excursions to the Gully, an underwater canyon 200 kilometers off Canada’s east coast, to research a species of beaked whale called the northern bottlenose whale.
The people who first studied beaked whales in the wild tended to share a similar experience: When they first set out, they were warned that their ambitions were hopeless, because the whales are so rarely seen. Diane Claridge is one such pioneer, having studied beaked whales in the Bahamas since 1991. She told me that even now, having discovered that the Bahamas have long-term, largely site-specific populations of Blainville’s beaked whales, and with three decades of accumulated knowledge about how and where to find them, she still only locates them on about 80 percent of field days—and doesn’t even bother to go looking if the ocean isn’t calm. The sightings often come after hours of searching, and then might involve only brief observations before the animals dive.
“Our notes are like, ‘Up. Down. Up. Down,’” Claridge said.
“Our notes say, ‘Went to this location, searched for an hour. Went to this location, searched for an hour,’” added Charlotte Dunn, her colleague at the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization.
“There’s not many people in the world who would want our job,” Claridge said.
Today, thanks to a handful of dedicated researchers around the globe, four species of beaked whale are relatively well studied: the northern bottlenose whale, Baird’s beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, and Blainville’s beaked whale. That leaves 19 species of beaked whales—again, creatures of a size that would seem tricky to lose track of—that are somewhere between mysteries and total enigmas. If the species spotted by Operation Divina Guadalupe off Baja last year is confirmed to be a new one, the tally will rise to 20.
When the first handbook dedicated exclusively to beaked whales was finally published in 2017, the authors declared them “the least known of all the large animals in the world.” We know more about certain dinosaurs than some living beaked whales. Yet they are out there right now, perfectly familiar to themselves, perhaps rolling at the surface in a gale, or, in the words of one scientist, “singing their clicks and whistles into the abyss.” They have not needed to come from outer space in order to be otherworldly. They’ve only needed a parallel universe: the life aquatic of the deep sea.
Beaked whales are diving whales, or else, as some now say, they are surfacing whales. It’s a matter of emphasis, of orientation. To call them diving whales is to say that they live at the surface and visit the depths. To call them surfacing whales turns the formula around.
There are few signs that beaked whales take pleasure in time spent at the interface between water and air. When at or even near the surface, they are usually dead silent. They don’t hang around for long, either, often only a minute or two before disappearing. Night and day, probably year-round, they are either making deep dives or preparing to do so, a metronomic pattern that suggests they prefer to spend their time in the lightless waters far below, but regrettably need to breathe air to do so.
“They’re just on this really tight cycle,” Dunn said. “It’s like they don’t have any time to do anything else. Work, sleep; work, sleep.”
Dives of 1,500 meters are ordinary. The deepest on official record is nearly 3,000 meters, but only because a plunge measured at 3,568 meters was discounted due to the fact that the whale’s satellite tag had only been pressure tested to three kilometers of depth. Then there’s the fact that submersibles have photographed large gouges in the seafloor that resemble marks made elsewhere by beaked whales, but they run as deep as 4,258 meters below the surface—two and a half miles down. “I don’t know what to think about this, as it’s super deep and seems insane,” said Nicola Quick, who has studied beaked-whale diving as a research scientist with Duke University’s marine lab.
Yet it is in the deep-water “midnight zone” that beaked whales seem to come to life. There, safe from predators like sharks and killer whales, in cold darkness lit only occasionally by the ghostly glow of luminescent sea creatures, they burst into the sounds they use to echolocate their prey. Somewhere beneath the waves, too, is where the behaviors human eyes have never seen—from males slashing each other with their tusks in battles for dominance to couples mating to the basic act of feeding—presumably take place. The beaked whales might even nap as they tumble into the abyss—scientists have no clear sense, really, of how they otherwise fit enough rest into their 24-hour diving cycle.
“They do things they are not supposed to be able to,” says Andreas Fahlman, a research scientist with the Fundación Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain. The essence of how beaked whales have escaped our attention is not how deep they dive, but how long they stay down there. People have forever been fascinated by animals that live in water but, like us, must hold their breath when they’re under it. In an early exploration of such creatures’ limits, the American physiologist Laurence Irving once held a muskrat under water for 12 minutes, only to watch it dive again the moment he let it go. (He gave up on a beaver after just six minutes, when it started thrashing.) At the time, Irving was aware of whalers’ reports that northern bottlenose whales could linger underwater for two hours. Such claims sounded apocryphal.
March 28, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT / Updated March 28, 2021, 8:05 AM PDTBy Sarah Harman and Carlo Angerer
HÚSAVÍK, Iceland — Surrounded by snow-covered mountain ranges, this tiny town on Iceland’s north coast has become the “whale capital” of the country — whale watching is its lifeblood.
“It’s probably the most popular activity for visitors, foreign and domestic,” Heimir Hardarson, captain at North Sailing, said.
As one of the pioneers of whale watching in Iceland, Hardarson has taken people onto ocean waters for nearly 30 years to experience a close encounter with some of the largest animals in the world.
“Very mystical creatures,” he said, “floating around in their weightlessness.”
On a recent morning, Hardarson took a handful of visitors on his boat that usually holds 90 passengers to spot humpback and fin whales in Skjalfandi Bay.
Visitor numbers have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But the global slowdown has actually been good for the whales, as human interference has decreased. Ambient noise in the world’s oceans from cruise ships, sonar and construction is way down.
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“I think, overall, the pandemic has largely been a positive for whales,” said Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist and biologist with the University of California at Santa Cruz.
He is studying how the quieter oceans have affected whales by measuring their stress levels through hormone samples. Friedlaender said animals use acoustics such as whale songs to communicate with one another and locate food. Noise in the environment can interfere with those communications and other critical life functions
“The thought is that as you decrease the amount of human activity and noisy environment, we’re going to see a decrease in the stress hormone levels of these animals,” he said.
Friedlaender said stress affects whales similarly to how it has an impact on humans, changing their behavior and ability to perform physically and mentally. Stress can also lead to long-term changes affecting a whale’s overall health and its ability to reproduce.
“The animal may not reproduce as frequently as it would have otherwise,” he said. “If it doesn’t reproduce as frequently, the population doesn’t have the opportunity to grow as quickly, or to maintain its population growth.”
The pandemic has had an even more concrete impact on the whale population off Iceland’s coast: It has helped accelerate the end of commercial whale hunting.
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Iceland is one of only three countries in the world that still allow commercial whaling, the other two being Japan and Norway, and last year two Icelandic whaling companies halted hunting operations due to health restrictions. Operators told local media that social distancing regulations would make the usual processing onboard impossible.
“I’m never going to hunt whales again, I’m stopping for good,” Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the minke whaling company IP-Utgerd, told the news agency Agence France-Presse last year. And demand has continued to fall.
“There’s no need to hunt the whales anymore. There’s no need to eat them,” said Eva Björk Káradóttir, director of the Húsavík Whale Museum. “The young generation born after 2000 don’t really do it.”
In fact, much of the demand for whale meat within Iceland had been from tourists who wanted to try it during their visits, she said. Icelanders have re-examined their relationship to whales in recent decades.
“I think tourism started and we started to get just people from all over the world. We got a new perspective, and it’s just in that time that we realized really that our land is beautiful, our water is good and also that people were interested in whales,” she said.
Hardarson, the captain of the whale watching boat, said that people have stopped eating whale meat for several reasons, including realizing the senselessness of killing an animal that can live for almost a century. And he highlighted another simple reason, as well.
“They are worth way more alive than dead,” he said. “I think there’s going to be no commercial whaling, and in the future. I can see no reason why there should be.”
He acknowledged that animals are also affected by whale watching tours but said the experience helps motivate people to protect them.
“There are threats also connected to whale watching and something you have to keep in mind to try not to overstress or put too much pressure on the resource in this way,” he said. “We are very concerned about this, so we are trying to keep down speed and we are trying to minimize our carbon footprint.”
His hope now is that with tourism growing as Iceland allows vaccinated visitors to enter the country without having to quarantine, whale watching will once again be big business, helping to support the animals and the whole town.