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Posts from the ‘Environmental Education’ category

Sperm Whales – Magnificent and Misunderstood

It was on July 16th, 2010 when I saw Sperm Whales for the first time off the coast of British Columbia and my world rocked.

This whale species is unlike any other and is extreme in so many ways.

Sperm Whales:

  • Make very long and very deep dives
  • Have the biggest brains
  • Are the largest toothed animals
  • Make the loudest sounds
  • Have a very strange common name reflecting great misunderstanding
  • Were hunted intensely
  • And are so very, very unique looking.

I saw the Sperm Whales while having the joy of being a Marine Mammal Observer on DFO’s Cetacean Research Program’s offshore survey. I first saw them in the area where I have put the blue star on the map below. You’ll note from this image that this area off the continental shelf is where many sperm whales were “taken” by whalers. It is in deep waters like this that sperm whales find their prey of deep ocean fishes and squid (from medium-sized squid species to the giant squid).

Sperm Whales inshore of Vancouver Island are exceedingly rare. There was one documented in February 2018 near Telegraph Cove by Lisa Larsson of OrcaLab and Jared Towers of DFO. In late fall of 1984 Dr. John Ford of DFO recorded the clicks from one in Johnstone Strait near Telegraph Cove (source: Ford, Marine Mammals of British Columbia).

Our first clue that we might be sighting Sperm Whales was the very unique blows that veer sharply off to the left. Through binoculars we could confirm the species ID by seeing the animals’ colossal heads and wrinkly skin and, when they descended for a long and deep dive, it was indisputable that we were seeing Sperm Whales. The distinctly shaped tails came high out of the water, straight up and down and the animals descended as if slowly going down in an elevator. I found myself gasping in amazement when I first saw this. (Note that the images below showing the Sperm Whale’s dive and blow are not from the research trip in B.C.)

Down he went. Down, down, down. The dive could take up to 90+ minutes and could be to a depth of 1185 m (most dives to ~400 metres for 35 to 60 minutes). That’s more than 100 atmospheres of pressure!  (One weblink I provide below provides video of a Sperm Whale at this depth.)

Apparently an average Sperm Whale’s dive profile is to slowly descend for 10 minutes, hunt at depth (more often at 300 to 800 m) for approximately 25 minutes, then slowly ascend for 10 minutes. The whales then stay at the surface for some 8 minutes, taking up to 90 breaths (range of 20 to 70) to offload carbon dioxide and reload oxygen into their blood and muscles.

This long period at the surface is when they were an easy target for the whalers. Yes, Moby Dick was a Sperm Whale but the ferociousness portrayed by Herman Melville in this classic novel is pure fiction. Were Sperm Whales to attack and swallow people whole, they may not have been so terribly exploited. We humans wanted their blubber, their spermaceti and their ambergris. Ambergris is found in the intestines (see previous blog item) and “spermaceti” is a semi-liquid wax found in the Sperm Whales’ huge heads. Early whalers thought it was a reproductive material which is why the species has its strange common name. Science now believes that this material has a role in buoyancy by being cooled and contracting to become more dense when the whale is diving and then becoming heated and expanding to allow the whale to ascend from such great depths. It may also have a role in sound production.

In the dark world to which the Sperm Whales descended, they find their prey through echolocation. These clicks act like an “acoustic flashlight”. They go out from the whale’s huge head and, when they bounce off an object and “echo” back, this allows the sperm whale to form an image of its surroundings and prey. (I also provide a weblink below that provides amazing, but very worrying, video of a Sperm Whale using echolocation to take fish off a longline = “depredation”).

As well as these slow and regular echolocation clicks, Sperm Whales also make really loud clicks called “codas”. Codas are believed to allow the Sperm Whales to communicate with one another, maybe in a way like we humans use Morse code. Listen to the Sperm Whale that was in Johnstone Strait in February 2018 at this link. 

I don’t know that anyone can be quite the same after an enormously privileged experience like seeing a Sperm whale. I was left stunned with a cocktail of emotion surging through me that included wonder, joy, passion and resolve. More passion for conservation and more resolve to share these experiences to make them count.

Male adult Sperm Whale going of a deep dive. Image by Peter Jucker; taken in the St. Lawrence.www.juckiwildlifephotography.com

Typical Sperm Whale blow = low, bushy, explosive and at a sharp left angle.Image by Peter Jucker; taken in the St. Lawrence.www.juckiwildlifephotography.com

Sperm Whale tooth. Image by Louisa Bates of Telegraph Coves Whale Interpretive Centre.www.killerwhalecentre.org

Many thanks to Peter Jucker and Uko Gorter for their great generosity in sharing images for the purpose of education and conservation.


Links to Sperm Whale sound and video:


Sources:

Great resource for further information on Sperm Whales off British Columbia’s coast: John Ford’s 2014; Marine Mammals of British Columbia: Royal BC Museum Handbook; available via the Royal BC Museum and Amazon.ca .

AOKI, KAGARI; MASAO AMANO; KYOICHI MORI; AYA KOUROGI; TSUNEMI KUBODERA and NOBUYUKI MIYAZAKI (2012) Active hunting deep-diving sperm whales: 3D profiles and maneuvers during bursts of speed. Marine Ecology Progress Series 444:289-301.

Hakai Magazine, August 2021, Why We Can’t Shake Ambergris

Watwood SL, Miller P, Johnson M, Madsen PT, Tyack PL (2006) Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Journal of Animal Ecology 75: 814-825.

Whitehead, H. (2003). “Vertical Movements: The Sperm Whale’s Dive”. Sperm Whales Social Evolution in the Ocean. University of Chicago Press. p. 79.

Seeing Whales – Seeing Red

I saw A12 swim by today. A12, also known as Scimitar, is an old female killer whale of the “Northern Resident” population of fish-eating, inshore killer whales. She is about 69-years-old (known as the result of the photo-identification work of Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and the late Dr. Michael Bigg).

A12 is the grand dame of the first family of killer whales I ever saw; an experience that had an impact on me that I will never fully be able to explain. It led me to make a radical career change, moving back to Canada to work as a marine educator on the very waters where I first saw A12.

Seeing her today was as powerful an experience for me as it was the first time I saw her but  . . . there was sadness too and, there was anger.

Last year her son A33 “Nimpkish” went missing. He was around 38-years-old. Mother fish-eating killer whales never leave their sons so we knew there was very little chance of ever seeing him again. Indeed, no one ever has.

With A33 gone, A12 would still sometimes travel with her daughter A34 and A34’s calves and grand-calves but she was also often on her own. Then, as of July 22nd, she was frequently seen with “the three brothers” (the A36s); three mature male killer whales whose mother went missing in 1997. As the only surviving offspring, these males were always together. A12 is closely related to them and it was remarkable to see how the mother with no son, interacted with the sons with no mother.

Today, there were only two of the three brothers near A12. The eldest, A32 (aka “Craycroft”) who was around age 46, is now missing.

Another male killer whale gone.

And this is what laced my experience today with anger. But why?  Whales, like everything else, die.

I assure you I am not being overly sentimental. It will never be conclusive what made these whales die but, but, BUT we humans definitely had an influence. Their health, in fact, is an accurate mirror of how our actions impact the environment.

The whales, with their position high in the marine food chain, are full of chemicals like fire retardants and pesticides (the work of Dr. Peter Ross). Despite the many lessons learned with the likes of chemicals like PCBs and DDT, which were banned in 1977, we still do not appropriately test new chemicals and we use chemicals with reckless abandon. The toxic reality is that the ocean is a soup of chemicals – including the old and new (e.g. PBDEs) “persistent organic pollutants” that do not break down; “travel” to the colder areas of the world; build up in the food chain (bioaccumulate and biomagnify), and reduce animals’ ability to fight disease and reproduce.

A32 was above average age for a male killer whale but “average age” has been determined from the data available only after our use of these chemicals. It is not believed to be natural that male killer whales (and the males of many other marine mammal species) die at a much younger age than the females. Their earlier demise has to, at least in part, be due to their toxin loads being much higher than the loads in the females. The females’ toxin levels are lower because females download these fat-soluble toxins in the fatty mother’s milk, to their calves (of course with negative impacts to the calves).

These chemicals had to have an impact on the missing mature males and, the situation literally becomes all the more toxic, when coupled with lack of food. When the whales do not have enough food and use up their fat reserves, the toxins become more concentrated. And 2008 was an appalling year for Chinook salmon, the salmon species essential to the survival of killer whales of the “resident” populations. The work of Dr. John Ford has shown that there is a direct correlation between the survival of these killer whales and the availability of Chinook salmon and, of course, we humans impact the survival of salmon  . . . by habitat loss, over-harvesting, climate change, current open net-cage salmon farming practices, etc.

So today, as I witnessed A32 no longer being with his brothers, I felt the wave of rage come up inside me. Missing whales causes reflection on the state of the environment due to human over-consumption, lack of precaution and disconnect from Nature.

But the wave passed shortly after the whales did. For there is still every reason for hope. As long as people care enough to change, there is hope. The potential for change is endless and there is ample evidence of humanity, increasingly, moving in a direction that considers the link between our daily actions and whales like A12, A33 and A32.

Indeed, there is ample reason for hope as long as there are people like you who read to the end of a lengthy blog entry like this.

Take one further step and click on this link to find out how easy it is to help the whales, and ourselves.

Thank you.

Challenge – Find the Crab!

 

 

Typical shape of members of the kelp crab family. Species in this family are usually from 5 to 9 cm across the carapace.

This week I bring you the “Where’s Waldo?” of the marine invertebrates. There is a decorator crab in each of the images at the link below. But first, here are some clues for you.

Most of the species of crabs that decorate themselves to be masters of camouflage are in the spider crab family (Majidae family – also known as “kelp crabs”).  The image to the right shows you an undecorated kelp crab with the typical long legs and distinctly shaped shell (“carapace”) of this family.

Some crabs only partially camouflage themselves, especially when they are juveniles. Others “plant” so many marine neighbours onto themselves that you can’t tell them apart from their environment until they move.

Although they look like walking gardens, the organisms they attach to the stiff, curved hairs on their legs and backs are algae and animals, not plants. The animals can be soft corals, sponges or unique creatures like “bryozoans” and “hydroids”.

Not only does this covering of life allow the crabs to hide from predators, it also changes the way the crabs feel and taste. For example, sponges taste bad or are even toxic to many predators so, if you cover yourself with sponges, predators be gone! The bonus of carrying other organisms on your back is that you also have a food supply within a pincher’s reach.

It is truly astounding how well the decorator crabs match their immediate surroundings which added another mystery to my list: Is the range of decorator crabs really small so that they always match their background OR do they know to “adjust” their camouflage when they move to an area where they no longer blend in?

I have learned that the latter appears to be the case. Experiments with captive decorator crabs have shown that, if moved to a background that no longer offers camouflage, the crabs will “adjust” their decorations!

Click here to find the decorator crabs in my images or view gallery below.