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Posts Tagged ‘whale’

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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whales-humpback-watercolor-mom-and-baby-olga-shvartsur

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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