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Posts Tagged ‘orca’

Photo: National Geographic for Disney+/Peter Kragh.
Baby beluga. Belugas are the only whale that can use their lips to form different shapes to communicate.

Many of us pay more attention to oceans in the summer as that is the time we go swimming, fishing, or boating in oceans. It’s the time we suddenly start talking about sightings of Great White Sharks or a deadly Portuguese Man-of-War. It’s when my surfer grandchildren report on huge fish they say are nibbling their feet, probably striped bass.

So today I want to share a story about ocean royalty, whales. It’s from the environmental radio show Living on Earth.

“On Earth Day 2021, National Geographic released Secrets of the Whales, a video documentary miniseries that seeks to unravel the secrets of whale behavior and understand whale cultures of orcas, humpbacks, narwhals, belugas, and sperm whales. National Geographic Explorer and wildlife photographer Brian Skerry joins host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the experience of filming this epic project and the breathtaking complexity of whale societies. …

“BASCOMB: A theme that comes up again and again in this series is culture: that whales have distinct cultures. And not just between different species of whales, but between different pods or families. …

“SKERRY: You’re absolutely right. When I created this, I saw this as a game changer that the latest and greatest science was revealing that these charismatic ocean animals are showing behaviors that are really cultures, not unlike humans. My friend, Dr. Shane Gero, who’s a sperm whale biologist, he defines it this way. He says behavior is what we do, culture is how we do it.

“So for example, most humans eat food with utensils, that would be behavior, but whether you use knives and forks or chopsticks, that is culture. So what we see in whales, you know, you might have a family of Orca that live in New Zealand, and their preference for ethnic food is stingrays. And they figured out how to eat those there. And the ones in the Norwegian Arctic, like to eat herring, and they figured out how to predate on herring. And the ones in Patagonia like seal pups, and they are the only ones in the world who have that strategy. They not only figured out this stuff, which is culture, but they pass it on to their children.

So they are not only teaching their offspring the skills that they will need to survive, but they’re teaching them their ancestral traditions, the things that matter to them.

“Whales have unique dialects. Sperm whales that Shane studies in the Eastern Caribbean, he’s identified about 24 families that all speak the same dialect or language, and they belong to a clan. But they don’t intermingle with other sperm whales that might come into those waters that speak another language. …

“BASCOMB: And during your time in New Zealand with orcas there, there was a moment in the series where you were invited to share in the spoils of their hunt. Can you tell us about that experience?

“SKERRY: I can. This was certainly one of the most extraordinary moments of my career of four decades of exploring the ocean. We worked in 24 locations collectively for this series worldwide over three years. And I had just come from six weeks in the Canadian Arctic and I had about 10 days in New Zealand. I was working with a researcher Dr. Ingrid Visser, who is the orca expert, lives in New Zealand, understands these animals. … We drove three hours to get there, got in the boat, went out, found the orca, they were hunting in shallow water. I got in the water and started swimming towards them. And lo and behold, here is this adult female swimming towards me with a stingray actually hanging out of her mouth. My mind is on overload now, I’m thinking, I can’t believe this. And then she drops it. …

“I swim down to the bottom and I knelt on the sandy floor next to the dead stingray just laying there. And then out of the corner of my right eye, I see this orca coming back, and she swings behind my back, I lose sight of her for a moment. And then she emerges on the left side of my view, she swings around directly in front of me.

“And now we’re staring at each other with a stingray between us. And she’s looking at me and looking at the ray looking at me looking at the ray as if to say, ‘Well, are you going to eat that?’ And when I don’t go for it, then she very gently just bends over, picks it up in her mouth and lifts it up in front of me. And then she turns and begins sharing her food with another member of her family. …

“BASCOMB: This series also documents the formation of a surprising cross species adoption between lost Narwhal, a youth, and a pod of beluga whales. …

“SKERRY: Yeah, that’s a really special situation. … I think it speaks to the empathy and the accepting nature of these beluga whale families. I mean, clearly, they know that that’s not one of their own. But yet they saw this narwhal that was alone, and just made it part of the family. They adopted it as one of their own. And, I mean, how wonderful is that?

“I think this is one of the messages that I’ve sort of taken away. You know, I spent three years working on this. As I’ve processed a lot of these moments that we witness in the series, it occurred to me that I’ve been reminded of things that I already knew, and that is that community matters, that family matters, that the whales make time for each other.

“A sperm whale for example, these are matrilineal societies led by the older, wiser females, they spend most of their life in the deep ocean foraging for squid. Life in the ocean is hard, but yet every day or every couple of days, they make time to come together and socialize. You see them rolling around and enjoying each other’s company, reaffirming their family bonds. And for me to reflect back on this was to be reminded of how important social creatures are, that humans and whales can’t do it alone. We need each other, we need family, we need community, and that that alone can bring us the greatest joy in life.”

Lots more whale cultures described at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: NOAA
Aerial image of Granny J2 (right) and a juvenile orca, J45, chasing a salmon in September 2016. Ultimately J2 captured the salmon and presented it to J45.

Being a grandparent himself, my husband recently took note of some research on grandmothers in the animal kingdom and judged it blogworthy. This version of the story appeared online at King5News.

Michael Crowe reports, “A team of researchers have found having a young orca’s grandmother around improves survival of the offspring. A study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tests the ‘grandmother effect’ in Southern and Northern Resident killer whales off Washington state and British Columbia. …

“The study used decades of photo census records of the two populations to study survival of individual whales and connected family groups through observation. And they found if a grandmother whale died, it reduced the survival of her ‘grandwhales’ in the two years following her death.

“ ‘The statistics showed they were healthier and lived longer when they had a thriving grandmother,’ said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network.

“Dr. Deborah Giles, a killer whale researcher at the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, said the study confirmed decades of observations.

“ ‘They’re incredibly socially bonded animals,’ Giles said. She said it’s a fascinating relationship, because whales can live decades after they cease reproducing – killer whales have evolved one of the longest post-reproductive spans outside humans.

“She recalled an aerial photo of J2 (also known as ‘Granny’) from 2016 sharing fish with J45 – her apparent great-grandson. J45’s mother had recently died, and he was not yet old enough to thrive without support. Though J2 was thin and towards the end of her life, she helped the younger relation.

‘It sticks out to me, because this is an animal in here late 80s, maybe old as early hundreds,’ said Giles. ‘She’s clearly trying to keep that fish in the pathway of her relative so he’ll eat it. …

” ‘She could have eaten that fish in one bite, but she chose to corral it toward him so he’d grab it.’

“The study also notes the importance of grandmother whales in lean salmon years when the female leaders serve as ‘repositories for ecological knowledge.’ …

“ ‘The grandmothers have that long perspective, the multi-decade look at where the salmon have been, the nooks and crannies,’ said Garrett. ‘… So they’re constantly in that role of guide, mentor, teacher. They share not only their food, but their traditions, their ways.’ …

“There are 73 Southern Resident whales we know of, Giles said, and of that, there are just four grandmothers remaining – one in J pod, one in K pod, and two in L pod. She worries that these grandmothers will only become more important to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales’ survival. …

“Garrett also hopes deeper knowledge of the whales’ behaviors will encourage people to help protect them.

“ ‘I think the study helps people learn more detail, more higher resolution if you will, of how they live and who they are,’ he said. ‘They really are individuals with their own identities, their own roles, their own place in their societies and in their families. And the more we get to know them in that kind of intricate detail, the more we feel close to them, and want to help them in any way we possibly can.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Shutterstock
Another name for the orca is killer whale.

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