Baby whales sing baby talk

Sound familiar?

 A comprehensive new survey of North Atlantic right whales makes it clear that baby whales sing in "baby talk." The young whales start out by producing weird, warped, often silly versions of the songs and sounds that adult whales make.

These calls are close enough to the adult version that researchers can tell which sound the babies are trying to imitate. But the baby's versions are longer, "loopier," and often warble chaotically. 

As the calf grows up, they continue to refine their calls, even through their teenage years. By the time the whales are 25, their calls are crisp, smooth, purer versions of the same song the whales babbled as babies.

To conduct the study, researchers recorded calls and sorted them by individual whale, over the course of decades of research. Each whale has a distinctive voice, just like humans, so the researchers were able to reliably track a whale's verbal development over the years.

Whales adopt deformed dolphin

Cross-species social groups shows that tolerance is present in the animal world.

If you’re one of those that follows my writing here at Klat (there’s got to be one of you out there, right?), then you know I like to write about dolphins and whales.  So when I get to write about both, especially when the news is uplifting, I’m pretty pleased.  The latest interesting case involves a group of sperm whales that seem to have adopted, at least temporarily, a dolphin with a spinal deformity.


The sperm whale pod was spotted with the dolphin in the North Atlantic.  The dolphin was a grown adult and it was witnessed both hanging out with the whales as well as rubbing up against them.  The whales appeared to be perfectly okay with the affection, even in the presence of their calves.

There are other cases similar to this in the wild, where one species makes friends with another.  Some do it for mutual protection from predators, some to maximize the chances of finding food, while others do it for little more than to have a friend around.  The dolphin may have ended up with the whales due to his not being able to keep up with his own group, but the whales really have no reason to keep him around.  Usually the two species have a rivalry and the whales are, in the long run, getting very little advantage from having a dolphin straggler.  So it would seem they like his company.  Or, as some suggest, they may just think he’s a strange whale calf.

Researchers are unsure of how long the relationship will go on and whether the whales will be permanently adopting or not.  Chances are more likely that they just want someone to hang out with for a while.  Still, it’s a pretty remarkable pairing and a lesson to humans about how even these supposedly “lesser” species are better than us in some ways.

Researchers use underwater robots to listen to whales

New technology may be a great breakthrough in helping to find and preserve endangered whales.

In the latest bit of cool technology news, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) sent two research robots underwater to listen to some whale songs in the Gulf of Maine.  They had long suspected that they area was being used by whales as a breeding ground during the winter but until now had little proof.  The end result was a record of whale songs coming from nine endangered North Atlantic right whales, in addition to several songs from more common whales.

Listening to and recording the songs were but one part of the robots’ duties, however.  They were also looking at the particulars of the water in the gulf, trying to figure out exactly why these species would be using the area for mating.  And everything was a success thanks to the wonders of modern robotics.

In addition to getting a chance to experience something that might have otherwise gone unheard, the use of these robots allows us to gain a new awareness of the habits of these creatures.  By understanding where they are and why, conservationists are better able to put together plans to help manage and protect them.  Now that it’s known for sure that the right whales are mating near the gulf, guidelines can be put in place to keep them out of harm’s way.

Once again, technology proves a great help when it comes to being able to correct some of the damage that human beings have inflicted on animal populations.  Our ability to study whales has been greatly increased and an important tool is now available to help return their numbers to proper levels.  Who knows what else these robots could help with, given their superior detection skills?

Shutting down fishing to save whales…and make way for oil drilling

The deception behind California’s Marine Life Protection Act.

Some may have heard of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), an initiative passed in the state of California which was touted as being a law that would protect whales and other marine life from the harm that human beings can cause.  The goal was to create protected zones so as to maintain sustainable fishing while allowing marine life to have a steady food supply.  Fishing is an important economic element of California, so the initiative was seen as helping both people and whales.


But the truth of the matter is much different.  The MLPA initiative was in fact sponsored by some of the biggest enemies to marine health that exist in the world today, such as oil companies and coastal real estate developers.  If the act was supposed to create zones where human interference was disallowed, why would these sorts of industries be involved in passing it?

As it turns out, the initiative protects these areas, but only from fishing and nothing else.  This gives free reign to oil companies, military who wish to do testing, energy companies looking to use the ocean as a source of power and several other industries that don’t involve fishing.  In essence, the act preserves regions of the marine environment from fishers so that others can exploit them without competition.

This hardly protects whales and other marine life the way people would like.  In fact, in a rare act of coming together, fishermen, tribal members and environmentalists are all on the same side regarding their disapproval of the MLPA.  It does no good to save whales from fishermen taking all their food if they simply end up in danger from oil drilling or seismic testing.

It’s another case of people using their power to abuse the system and masking it as an environmental cause.  If we don’t begin to implement some system of full-disclosure, these sorts of shady laws will continue and whales and other ocean-dwellers will suffer because of our ignorance.  There is no excuse to allow big business to disguise their dealings while labeling it as environmental.  In my opinion, it should be illegal and these groups should be prosecuted for legal deception.  Until we have honest lawmaking regarding environmental policies, they will not function properly and whale populations will continue to be in danger.

World’s rarest whale unseen until 2010

An accidental death gives scientists the chance to see and study one of the rarest mammals on Earth

The spade-toothed beaked whale has, for some time, been little more than a 15-foot long mystery of the ocean.  As the world’s rarest whale, scientists knew very little about it other than what they could glean from various skull fragments found over the last 125 years.  It wasn’t until two years ago, in December of 2010, that they first saw more than bones.  A mother and a calf washed up on the shores of a New Zealand beach and opened up a whole new chance to study the creature.

At first, those who found the whale remains thought they were from a different species entirely - Gray’s beaked whales.  This led to the remains being buried and nearly forgotten.  Luckily, New Zealand has a program that tracks all the whales that wash up on their shores.  So, some six months later, a bit of DNA testing surprised a few scientists and led to the discovery that the bodies were indeed something much different.

The researchers who discovered the DNA were so blown away that they tested and retested hundreds of samples, just to make sure they were really looking at what they thought they were.  After confirming, the bodies were retrieved, albeit in a state with much less flesh on the bones.

Still, now that there is at least some biology to go with the previously faceless whale, scientists can study them in more depth.  The skeletons can be reconstructed and from there the muscles and other tissues of the whales can be discerned.  This may lead to information about how the whales live, what they eat and maybe even provide a few clues as to where they might be hiding.

Being able to get information on such an elusive species is a golden opportunity for those who study whales.  It’s a good thing New Zealand is paying attention, or this discovery may have slipped through the cracks and left us to wonder for another 100 years or more.

Whale protection in Australia being ignored?

Major energy company uses seismic testing in whale feeding ground despite known effects

Testing for natural resources in the ocean has become quite the controversial subject with regards to the impact that is has on whale populations and their survival.  Recently, an energy company by the name of Woodside decided to use a testing technique that implements air guns to find deposits of natural gas beneath the ocean’s surface.  This technique shoots compressed air at high velocity and creates a seismic blast, which anyone with a bit of scientific knowledge knows can be very harmful to whales in a number of ways.

Their target was a seamount in Australian waters.  It also happens to be the only known seamount in the region where whales have been seen feeding on a regular basis.  A population of blue pygmy whales shows up there seasonally and takes advantage of the high concentration of food.

Despite regulations stating that testing in the area should not be done during periods when the whales were present, Woodside managed to get their plan for testing approved by Australia’s environmental department.  They have publically stated that they knew the whales were going to be there, adding that they waited until the group had gone to begin their testing.

While one can appreciate them at least making an effort, there arises a question of how they even managed to get approval in the first place.  In theory, the permit should have been denied or at least postponed until the whales had moved on.  It’s yet another case of a government organization being set up to protect whales and simply ignoring their duties in the name of profit.  Access to oil and gas is all-important in today’s energy-driven world, but there needs to be a line drawn somewhere.  If the government agencies responsible for the overseeing of whales isn’t going to do it, then who is?

U.S. government hides full extent of BP oil spill

Photos and records of whale deaths hidden from the general public during BP trial

A recent investigation by Greenpeace has revealed that there were some documents pertaining to the study of the BP oil spill that were suppressed.  Pictures of whales covered in oil in the Gulf of Mexico along with a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about the potential impact of the oil on whales were both stopped from reaching public distribution.  The thing that makes this even more deplorable is the fact that it was the U.S. government that suppressed the information.

According to the reports, NOAA issued a press release concerning a dead whale covered in oil, along with a picture of that whale.  When they tried to release this information, the government told them to stop, prevented crew members from discussing any of it with the public and edited reports that had already gone through to make them appear as if the oil spill’s impact was less than it truly was.

What makes it really fishy (no pun intended) is the fact that this information was being released during the BP trial and, should it have been brought to light, BP would have most likely had to pay a lot more in damages than they did.  Normally, the information in the report would have been headline news, considering the public outcry over the spill.  Now, it’s just a footnote that few people will ever even know about.

If whales are being killed because of BP’s incompetence, why would the government side with them and undermine their own conservation and science agencies?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to rely on our politicians to protect these creatures and our citizens from the effects of such disasters as oil spills?  How many of our elected leaders were trying to protect their profits when they used their power of office to keep the truth from people?

Officials complain about heavy-handed activist groups such as Sea Shepherd and the tactics they use, but if we can’t trust our own government to handle the problem within the boundaries of the law, perhaps we have no one else to turn to.  Until the government takes the job of protecting whales seriously, this species will continue to be under serious threat.

U.S. Navy sonar program threatens whales worldwide

Government regulatory agencies aren’t doing their job to protect whales properly and are getting sued

The U.S. Navy just had a plan approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that will allow them to continue with their goal of blanketing approximately 75 percent of the ocean floors with sonar.  Considering that sonar has been proven to be potentially dangerous to whales, dolphins and several other marine species, this could be a huge problem.  Others see the same way and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has banned together with other conservation organizations and is taking the navy to court to try to stop the program.

Their argument is that the NRDC is supposed to be protecting whales and that by approving the navy’s plan they are effectively working in the opposite direction.  The navy plan calls for a small area (around 25 percent) of the ocean to be designated as “conservation zones”, but the NRDC is saying that this is far from enough for the migratory creatures who will likely end up straying into the sonar’s field on a regular basis.  Their conclusion is that these sonar plans are a direct violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Sonar is one of the most debated areas right now when it comes to whale conservation.  It is known that under the effects of sonar whales become confused and may not be able to hunt, navigate, communicate or even breed.  Effects on many other marine creatures are similar.  This creates a potential for mass deaths among whale populations, not only in U.S. waters but across the globe.

I have to wonder at how the navy could get away with something like this in the first place.  Even if only a small percentage of whales around the world ended up dead, it would still spark a debate about the legality of the U.S. blasting other territorial waters with sonar.  Threats to tourism and action from conservation groups would likely shut the program down almost as soon as it had begun.  I suppose the only thing we can do now is to sit and wait, hoping that they come to their senses before serious damage is done.

Pilot Whale mass beaching in Indonesia

More than three dozen whales die on Sabu Island despite rescue efforts

Sabu Island, a small island in Indonesia, recently saw a mass beaching of pilot whales this last Monday night.  46 whales in total washed ashore and all but three ended up dead, despite people’s best efforts to get them back into the water.  They washed up in the middle of the night and were found by some local fishermen. 

But by the time these fishermen found them, they had already been there for some time and there were not enough people present to mount a full-scale rescue effort.  The struggle to help them return to their natural habitat lasted into Tuesday evening, by which time all but three had died.

The main problem with helping them was that the whales simply refused to stay in the water.  Every time rescuers managed to get one back into the ocean, it would return to the shore and beach again.  Scientists are not completely sure why they displayed such behavior, but there are several theories.

Some think that the group was following their leader, who happened to be sick and beach himself.  This sort of behavior has been seen before, where a leader beaches and the rest of the group follows suit, heedless of their own safety.  Apparently, such things are more common among pilot whales.  Others think that they may have ended up stranded due to the rapidly receding tide in the area caused by seasonal monsoons.  Still others are putting forth more nefarious causes, such as chemical poisoning or other human-related problems with their sonar navigational abilities.

And though the whales didn’t make it out alive, at least something good came of it.  The local islanders, in keeping with their traditions, have began cutting up the whales and collecting their meat and oils to be used by their villages.  This is at least better than leaving the corpses to rot, despite the tragedy of the event.  Unfortunately, if pollution of some sort does prove to have played a part in the whale deaths, the villagers may be at risk.  Scientists are still looking to study the bodies and find out the whole truth of the matter.

Ambergris: A hidden treasure

UK eight-year-old stumbles upon up to $60k worth of sperm whale vomit

In today’s hard economy, one needs to do whatever they can to make a buck and survive.  Usually this means getting a job and humping into work every day like every other shmoe.  Other times, however, this means getting lucky and striking it rich.  And if you can’t win the lottery, there’s something that’s almost as good - finding a nice pile of dried-up sperm whale vomit.

One eight-year-old kid in the U.K. did just that, though quite by accident.  He happened upon some sperm whale vomit lying on the beach and, thinking it was just an interesting and unique rock, took it home with him.  Mom and dad wanted to find out what kind of rock it was so they checked out the Internet only to discover that it was sperm whale vomit, also known as ambergris.

Ambergris can run up to $100 a gram and the rock that the youth found weighed in at a healthy 600 grams.  Estimates put the value of the hardened puke at somewhere between $15,000 and $60,000.  That’s no small chunk of change for something that seems like it should be worthless.

As it turns out, ambergris is incredibly useful in the perfume industry.  It’s rare as all heck and used by top perfume manufacturers to make their products better by extending the life of the scent and adding a unique animal musk that can be found nowhere else.  Currently, the lad who found it is waiting for mom and dad to do some research about how to get the thing sold for maximum profit. 

So what is an eight-year-old going to do with a potential 60 grand?  He has expressed his wish to use the money to help animals.  He has a school club that is focused on sheltering animals and wants to expand it to do more.  I have to say, the boy shows some true nobility - taking a gift from nature to further benefit nature. 

So there you have it folks.  If you need some extra cash, go trawling the beach for sperm whale vomit.  Of course, don’t expect to find any.  It’s incredibly rare and often floats about in the sea for decades before finally making landfall.  And if you do manage to find some, do something nice with it instead of just buying yourself a new car.