Posts Tagged ‘whale’

Images: Public domain.
Depictions of sea creatures in 13th C manuscripts
. How marvelous these illustrations are!

The maritime archaeologist in today’s article says it was just a coincidence that he was reading ancient Norse texts and connected the description of a sea creature to recent observations of whales. But I believe it’s not a coincidence. Everything connects to everything, and the more widely you read, the more likely you are to find the connections.

The researchers noted: ‘Definitive proof for the origins of myths is exceedingly rare and often impossible, but the parallels here are far more striking and persistent than any previous suggestions.’

Donna Lu writes at the Guardian, “Mysterious whale feeding behavior only documented by scientists in the 2010s has been described in ancient texts about sea creatures as early as two millennia ago, new research suggests.

“In 2011, Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Thailand were first observed at the surface of the water with their jaws open at right angles, waiting for fish to swim into their mouths. Scientists termed the unusual technique, then unknown to modern science, as ‘tread-water feeding.’ Around the same time, similar behavior was spotted in humpback whales off Canada’s Vancouver Island, which researchers called ‘trap-feeding.’

“In both behaviors the whale positions itself vertically in the water, with only the tip of its snout and jaw protruding from the surface. Key to the technique’s success, scientists believe, is that fish instinctively shoal toward the apparent shelter of the whale’s mouths.

“Flinders University scholars now believe they have identified multiple descriptions of the behavior in ancient texts, the earliest appearing in the Physiologus – the Naturalist – a Greek manuscript compiled in Alexandria around 150-200CE.

“Dr John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, and the study’s lead author, made the discovery while reading Norse mythology, about a year after he had seen a video of a whale tread-water feeding.

“He noted that accounts of a sea creature known as hafgufa seemed to describe the feeding behavior. ‘It really was a coincidence,’ McCarthy said.

“The most detailed description appeared in a mid-13th-century Old Norse text known as Konungs skuggsjá – the King’s Mirror. It reads: ‘When it goes to feed … the big fish keeps its mouth open for a time, no more or less wide than a large sound or fjord, and unknowing and unheeding, the fish rush in in their numbers. And when its belly and mouth are full, [the hafgufa] closes its mouth, thus catching and hiding inside it all the prey that had come seeking food.’

“The King’s Mirror was an educational text used for explaining the world to young people, McCarthy said. ‘They exaggerate the size … [but] it’s not a fantastical description with any kind of supernatural elements.’ …

” 1986 analysis of the King’s Mirror had found correlations between 26 Old Norse descriptions and scientifically recognized marine animals, but had concluded that the hafgufa ‘must be relegated to the world of the miraculous.’

“ ‘The hafgufa was frustrating for these scholars because they couldn’t quite figure out any animal that this matched to,’ McCarthy said. …

“In the Naturalist – a 2,000-year-old text that ‘preserves zoological information brought to Egypt from India and the Middle East by early natural historians like Herodotus, Ctesias, Aristotle and Plutarch’ – the ancient Greeks referred to the creature as aspidochelone.

“A surviving version of the text reads: ‘When it is hungry it opens its mouth and exhales a certain kind of good-smelling odor from its mouth, the smell of which, once the smaller fish have perceived it, they gather themselves in its mouth. But when his mouth is filled with diverse little fish, he suddenly closes his mouth and swallows them.’ …

“Bryde’s whales and humpbacks are both rorquals, a type of baleen whale. The study was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.”

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall. Donations encouraged.

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Photo: Minette Layne/Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Toothed whales like orcas can make astonishingly loud sounds in three vocal registers. How do they do it despite the tremendous pressure underwater?

Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories? Our favorite growing up was “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk.” I still have a wonderful recording on cassette of my father reading it aloud in his stentorian voice. We loved Kipling’s robust language and used his expressions in daily life. For example, we always said that our Uncle Jim spoke just like the tale’s python rock snake, who lived “on the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees.”

(Is Kipling PC these days? I hope we can take him with a grain of salt. I would hate to lose these stories.)

Hannah Devlin at the Guardian harks back to Kipling in her report on whales with voices.

“The question of how the whale got its voice has been solved by scientists, who have discovered how the creatures use ‘phonic lips’ in their nose to produce the loudest sounds in the animal kingdom.

“The research also reveals that toothed whales, a group that includes killer whales, sperm whales, dolphins and porpoises, use three vocal registers equivalent to vocal fry (a low creaky voice), a normal speaking voice and falsetto.

“The research [was presented] at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC. …

“Prof Peter Madsen, a whale biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark and lead author, said: ‘These animals are producing the loudest sounds of any animal on the planet while being at a depth of 1,000 metres [3,280 feet]. It just seems such a paradox.’

“A central puzzle was how whales manage to generate sufficient flow of air, given that at 1,000 metres below the surface the pressure is so great that the air in the whale’s lungs is crushed to 1% of the volume it would occupy at the surface.

“The latest work shows that as whales dive deep below the surface, their lungs collapse and air is compressed into a small muscular pouch inside the mouth. To make a click, the whale opens a valve on the pouch for about a millisecond causing a high pressure blast of air to pass through a vibrating structure in the nose, called the phonic lips.

“ ‘When the lips slap back together, that’s what makes the click,’ said Madsen. The clicks, used to navigate and hunt prey, can reach volumes equivalent to a very powerful rifle being fired.

“The study, carried out over a decade, used high-speed video recorded through endoscopes, and collected audio recordings, using electronic tags, from trained dolphins and porpoises, and sperm whales and false killer whales in the wild. The researchers approached the huge marine mammals at sea in small boats and waited for them to come close in order to attach lightweight recording devices.

“ ‘Many whales will come up to us and have a look and echo-locate on the boat,’ said Madsen. ‘I sometimes wonder who is studying who – except they don’t put a tag on us.’ The recordings revealed three distinct registers. …

“The analysis, published in the journal Science, showed the whales use two additional registers for social communication. Scientists know that toothed whales have sophisticated social communication abilities, ranging from cooperation during hunting to the signature whistle that dolphins use to identify themselves. Other species, such as killer and pilot whales, make very complex calls that are learned and passed on culturally like human dialects.”

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall. Donations solicited.

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Photo: Todd Cravens via Unsplash.
Some whales “pass their songs across oceans,” says the New York Times. Humpback whales have been studied the most extensively, but other species of whales also sing complex songs.

Although we are surrounded by ocean, I fear that we rarely give much thought to how really extraordinary the ocean is and how many wonders dwell there. Today’s story is about whales that share their song lists around the world.

Carl Zimmer writes at the New York Times, “In a study published [in August], scientists found that humpback songs easily spread from one population to another across the Pacific Ocean. It can take just a couple of years for a song to move several thousand miles.

“Ellen Garland, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an author of the study, said she was shocked to find whales in Australia passing their songs to others in French Polynesia, which in turn gave songs to whales in Ecuador.

“ ‘Half the globe is now vocally connected for whales,’ she said. ‘And that’s insane.’

“It’s even possible that the songs travel around the entire Southern Hemisphere. Preliminary studies by other scientists are revealing whales in the Atlantic Ocean picking up songs from whales in the eastern Pacific.

“Each population of humpback whales spends the winter in the same breeding grounds. The males there sing loud underwater songs that can last up to half an hour. Males in the same breeding ground sing a nearly identical tune. And from one year to the next, the population’s song gradually evolves into a new melody.

“Dr. Garland and other researchers have uncovered a complex, language-like structure in these songs.

The whales combine short sounds, which scientists call units, into phrases. They then combine the phrases into themes. And each song is made of several themes.

“Male humpbacks sometimes change a unit in their song. Sometimes they add a new phrase or chop out a theme. The other males may then copy it. These embellishments cause the population’s song to gradually evolve, resulting in drastically different melodies from one population to the next.

“Michael Noad, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland, discovered that a population’s song can sometimes make a sudden, dramatic change. In 1996, he and his colleagues noticed that a male on the east coast of Australia had given up the local song and was now singing a tune that matched one previously sung on the west coast of the country.

“Within two years, all of the males on the east coast were singing that song. Dr. Noad’s landmark study was the first to discover this kind of cultural revolution in any animal species.

“Dr. Garland … wondered if their songs were spreading farther east across the Pacific. An opportunity to find out arrived when Judith Denkinger and Javier Oña, marine biologists at the University of San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, offered to collaborate. They study humpback whales that breed on the coast of Ecuador.

“For their new study, Ms. Denkinger and Mr. Oña recorded humpback whales from 2016 to 2018. Over the same period, Michael Poole, a marine biologist at the Marine Mammal Research Program on the French Polynesian island of Moorea, recorded whales there. …

“In 2016 and 2017, the two populations of whales had clearly distinct songs. But in 2018, a revolution happened: The whales in Ecuador were putting French Polynesian themes in their songs. The scientists reported their findings [in] the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“Elena Schall, a postdoctoral researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said that she is seeing some similar patterns in the Atlantic Ocean. Humpback whales off the coast of Brazil and South Africa are picking up themes previously recorded off the coast of Ecuador.

“It is conceivable, Dr. Schall said, that songs flow all the way around the Southern Hemisphere. ‘It’s possible, but there’s a data gap in the Indian Ocean,’ she said. ‘I think that will definitely be the next step, if we can find enough data.’ “

More at the Times, here. Amazing to think that whales in one part of the world can “cover” the songs of whales thousands of miles away.

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Photo: Opération cétacés.
Humpback whale breaching.

In case you couldn’t get behind the New York Times firewall to read about the whale that tried to swallow a lobster fisherman, here’s the gist of it. It’s a great reminder that all our ancient, impossible-seeming stories, from the Bible’s Jonah to Pinocchio and Geppetto, generally have a basis in fact.

Maria Cramer reported, “It was sunny and clear on Friday morning and the water was calm off the coast of Provincetown, Mass., where Michael Packard was diving for lobsters. His longtime fishing partner, Josiah Mayo, was following him in their fishing vessel, the J&J, tracking him through the bubbles that rose from Mr. Packard’s breathing gear to the surface of the water. The men had already caught 100 pounds of lobster, and Mr. Packard was about 40 feet underwater, looking for more.

“Suddenly, the bubbles stopped, Mr. Mayo said. Then, the water began to churn violently. A creature breached the surface and for an agonizing split second, Mr. Mayo thought it was a white shark.

‘I immediately thought it was the shark encounter that we’d unfortunately been preparing for for years,’ he said in an interview on Saturday.

“Then, he saw the fluke and the head of a whale. Moments later, he saw Mr. Packard fly out of the water.

“ ‘ “It tried to eat me,” ’ Mr. Packard sputtered, according to Mr. Mayo. The whale, a humpback, swam away as Mr. Mayo and another fisherman helped Mr. Packard back into the boat.

“Such terrifying encounters are virtually unheard-of, according to Charles Mayo, Josiah Mayo’s father and a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, a town of about 3,000 people on the tip of Cape Cod. …

“ ‘I’ve never heard of that ever happening,’ Dr. Mayo said of Mr. Packard’s ordeal. Still, the encounter is explainable, he said.

“The whale, possibly a 32- to 35-foot juvenile that had previously been seen swimming in the area, was most likely diving for food when it inadvertently caught Mr. Packard in its enormous mouth.

“Humpback whales spend much of their time in that part of New England, searching for and engulfing small schooling fish, said Jooke Robbins, director of the humpback whale studies program at the Center for Coastal Studies. They lunge fast, open their mouths and use baleen plates to ‘filter’ the water out before swallowing the fish, Dr. Robbins said in a statement.

“When the whale realized it had caught something that was not its typical prey — in this case, an unsuspecting lobsterman — it responded the way a human who accidentally ingested a fly would, Dr. Mayo said. …

“Mr. Packard told reporters that he was on his second dive, going toward the bottom of sea when he felt ‘this truck hit me.’ His first thought was that a white shark had attacked him, but when he did not feel teeth piercing into him, he realized he was inside a whale.

“ ‘I was completely inside; it was completely black,’ Mr. Packard told The Cape Cod Times. ‘I thought to myself: There’s no way I’m getting out of here — I’m done, I’m dead. All I could think of was my boys — they’re 12 and 15 years old.’ …

“He said he struggled against the mouth of the whale and could feel its powerful muscles squeezing against him. Then, he saw light and felt the whale’s head shaking and his body being thrown into the water. …

“Mr. Packard, who was released from the hospital on Friday, had extensive bruises, but no broken bones.”

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Reuters

Did someone read you Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories when you were a child? My father read them to me. My favorite was “The Elephant’s Child.”

“In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk.” I loved hearing about the elephant’s child’s “satiable curiosity.” I loved the way the characters talked. The bi-colored python rock snake on the banks of the grey-green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees spoke just like my Uncle Jim.

Recently, an article in the Guardian reminded me of Kipling’s fanciful stories about how animals looked before they acquired their characteristic traits. It was an article about the whale.

Riley Black wrote, “Whales used to live on land. This fact never ceases to amaze me. Even though every living species of cetacean – from the immense blue whale to the river dolphins of the Amazon basin – is entirely aquatic, there were times when the word ‘whale’ applied entirely to amphibious, crocodile-like beasts that splashed around at the water’s edge. This week, paleontologists named another.

Peregocetus pacificus – as named by a seven-strong paleontologist team led by Olivier Lambert – is [a mammal] that was excavated from the bed of an ancient ocean now preserved in Peru. … This was a whale that still had arms and legs, the firm attachment of the hips to the spine and flattened toe-tips indicating that Peregocetus was an amphibious creature capable of strutting along the beach. Yet conspicuous expansions to the tailbones of Peregocetus are reminiscent of living mammals, such as otters, that swim with an up-and-down, undulating motion … different from the side-to-side swish of most fish. …

“There are two points that make Peregocetus stand out. The first, Lambert and colleagues point out, is where Peregocetus was found. This early whale wasn’t discovered in ancient Asia, like many others, but in South America. It’s the first of its kind to be found on the continent, and from the Pacific side, at that. This is something of a surprise. Clearly whales were eminently seaworthy long before they became more streamlined and lost their hindlimbs. Finds such as Peregocetus, as well as the related Georgiacetus from North America, indicate that walking whales were capable of crossing entire oceans.

“But, more importantly, Peregocetus is a reminder of what wonders still await us in the fossil record. … Peregocetus [stands] in our fossiliferous imagination with its hind feet on the land and front paws in the water. The whale certainly adds to our understanding of how and when cetaceans took to the seas, but the most powerful fact of all is simply that such an unusual and unexpected creature existed.” More here.

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Art: Olga Shvartsur/Fine Art America
Humpback whale and baby. Recently, a humpback whale appeared to intentionally protect a researcher from a tiger shark.

A scientist who studies whales underwater was astonished and more than a little frightened in September 2017 when a whale kept pushing her toward her boat. After her colleagues pulled her to safety, she saw that in the other direction a dangerous tiger shark was lurking. The researcher believes that the whale was intentionally trying to protect her. Other scientists argue that whales aren’t altruistic.

I say, Who cares? The point is the whale’s action moved the diver away from danger, and she is grateful.

Sarah Gibbens writes at the National Geographic, “For 28 years, Nan Hauser has been researching and diving with whales. The biologist is the president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation. … During a trip to look at whales in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific last September, Hauser says she had an encounter unlike any she had experienced before.

“A humpback whale, a marine mammal capable of weighing 40 tons and growing 60 feet long, swam toward Hauser. For ten minutes, it nudged her forward with its closed mouth, tucked her under its pectoral fin, and even maneuvered her out of the water with its back. …

” ‘I was prepared to lose my life,’ she says. ‘I thought he was going to hit me and break my bones.’

“In addition to conducting research, Hauser says she was also in the Cook Islands to work on a nature film, so at the time the whale approached, both she and a fellow diver were armed with cameras. Hauser’s point-of-view footage shows just how persistently the whale nudged her. A second whale can also be seen lurking just behind the first.

“When she finally made it out of the water and up onto her boat — bruised and scratched from the barnacles on the whale — Hauser saw a third tail moving from side-to-side.

” ‘I knew that was a tiger shark,’ she says.

“Now, after viewing the footage and reflecting on the whole harrowing experience, Hauser concludes that the whale who nudged her likely exhibited an extraordinary example of altruism. …

“Hauser’s retelling isn’t the first time scientists have questioned whether humpback whales can show signs of altruism. A 2016 study in the journal Marine Mammal Science looked at 115 instances from the past 62 years in which humpbacks interfered with a pod of hunting orcas.

“Banding together, humpbacks were seen effectively protecting their calves. But there were also examples of humpbacks showing the same behavior to protect other species of whales, seals, and sea lions. …

“Martin Biuw from the Institute of Marine Research in Nowary is skeptical of Hauser’s claim that altruism is at play in the video. Hauser had speculated the whale was male, but Biuw believes it appears to be a female.

” ‘If that is the case, it is possible that she may show protective behavior towards a human (or other animal for that matter) if she has for instance recently lost her calf,’ he says.

“Biuw explained that hormonal changes could have spurred the whale to show protective behavior.” Oh, ha, ha, hormonal changes? Good grief, give me a break.

More at the National Geographic, here.

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I wish Pete Seeger were around for this story. The folksinger spent many years sailing his sloop the “Clearwater” up and down the Hudson River to draw attention to pollution. Today the river is in good enough shape to attract a whale chasing its dinner.

Recently, New York Times reporter Katie Rogers interviewed Dr. Rachel Dubroff, whose apartment overlooks the Hudson. She writes that the first time Dubroff spotted a whale swimming outside her living room window, “she didn’t quite believe the sighting was real,” but news reports in November confirmed that “the Hudson River has a resident humpback.”

Continues Rogers, “The Hudson, as scenic as it is, does not scream ‘whale habitat.’ But experts say cleanup and conservation efforts have led to cleaner waters and an abundance of fish. …

“A whale appearing in the Hudson is very rare, [Paul Sieswerda, the president of Gotham Whale, an organization that tracks marine life around the city] said, which is why he thinks this one is a solo traveler. But the whale still faces significant danger because it is swimming in traffic-laden waters. …

“ ‘When you have whales chasing the bunker [menhaden], and fishermen chasing the stripers that chase the bunker, accidental interactions between whales and vessels can occur,’ Jeff Ray, a deputy special agent with NOAA’s law enforcement division,” added.

I hope everyone using the river will watch out for whales and try to coexist. It would be great if the whale came back after the usual typical retreat to warmer breeding grounds in winter.

More at the New York Times, here.

Art: Amy Hamilton
A humpback whale like the one spotted in New York’s Hudson River in November 2016.

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I spent four months reading MobyDick in 2010, and I must say that for me there was way too much information about different kinds of ropes, how to cut up a whale, and the categories of seagoing creatures. I could not figure out why people I admire read MobyDick over and over.

So, avast! There is now a way for people like me to grasp the essence of Herman Melville’s classic. It’s a one-man show performed by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, who — along with his wife and director, Judy Hegarty Lovett — adapted the book’s highlights.

ArtsEmerson presented this wonder in Boston recently, and I’m in awe.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the actor in his Ishmael role has the stunned, wounded look of Tommy Smothers (remember the insecure brother in the 1970s comedy duo?), Conor is heartbreaking. His facial expressions and body language before he speaks Melville’s famous opening, “Call me Ishmael,” convey a haunted man, one who, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, has witnessed mysteries beyond human understanding and feels condemned to tell the story to anyone who will listen. His look says, Why was I spared? Why did I choose this voyage? Why did I listen to the prophetic mad sailor Elijah on a wintry Nantucket dock and still choose to sail on the cursed Pequod?

The production is full of dark musings, the roars of a crazed Captain Ahab, and the savagely raging elements of air, water, and fire. But at the outset, stage time is lovingly devoted to the humorous side of Ishmael searching for New Bedford lodgings, having to bunk with the “harponeer” Queeqeg, and learning to recognize the interior decency behind the mask of the “cannibal.”

That the novel is deep is clearer to me now. I’m still pondering Ahab’s speech about whaleness being merely the “mask” that MobyDick wears. When the devout first mate Starbuck says it’s wrong to seek revenge against a whale that is merely a dumb beast — a creature of God — Ahab counters that beneath the mask is an infinitely malevolent force that must be conquered at all costs. We never feel sure what this force is supposed to be. Satan? Then why do the natural elements seem to take the side of the whale? I’m still wondering why we never learn if the whale dies or lives to wreak havoc another day.

But at last I see why people admire this book. Read more here.

P.S. The play is part of Imagine Ireland, “a year of Irish arts in America.” Check it out.

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