Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blue Whale Fest

On July 26th, LK and I went out on the American Cetacean Society's Blue Whale Watch, a fundraising trip aboard the Condor Express. We ventured out about 26 nautical miles from the Santa Barbara harbor. It was a blast! We had perhaps a thousand Short-beaked Common Dolphins, two Minke Whales, and ultimately, at least ten, but perhaps as many as twenty Blue Whales. As we approached the waters that the Blue Whales had been favoring, the fog grew thicker until we were unable to see more than 100 meters from the boat. I began to worry a bit that we might conceivably miss them due to fog, as I have had some difficult whale watching experiences on the Bay of Fundy thanks to fog. Eventually, it was the skipper who heard one blow over the noise of the engines. We idled at the spot until we again heard the loud and unmistakable spouting. We crept toward the sound until finally we could just barely make out the slightly darker form of a whale at the surface. We followed it slowly, getting progressively better views until it led us into less foggy conditions. From this point on, we were never out of sight of whales. This was about 7-8 nautical miles WNW of Santa Cruz Island (see map). I had seen Blue Whale on three other occasions, but the opportunity to spend more than three hours observing these magnificent creatures was simply fantastic.

The seas were wonderfully calm for our excursion. There seemed to be a lot going on at times, with numerous California Sea Lions visible for much of the trip. There were a couple of Harbor Seals seen too, including one wrapped up in kelp. It wasn't doing any talking. There were a few Ocean Sunfish, and at one point, we found a small gathering of young ones. Seabirds were sparse, though there were plenty of Sooty Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters.

The trip's narration was first rate. Most of it was delivered by cetacean expert Alisa Schulman-Janiger. Among the myriad of whale trivia she mentioned over the course of the cruise was that recent tagging/tracking studies of Blue Whales had shown that Blue Whales seem to form male-female pair bonds, as animals are often found in pairs with the female swimming just ahead of the male. Unlike the toothed whales, baleen whales are not thought to form any significant long term social bonds outside of that of a mother and calf. So the long term pair bonding of Blue Whales is a significant finding. We also encountered a team of cetacean biologists (working under Dr. Bruce Mate) who were tagging Blue Whales, and we were able to observe two of these tagged animals.

The occurrence of Blue Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel in summer seems to be a recent phenomenon. When I was at school at UCSB in the mid-80's, Blue Whales were almost unheard of near the Channel Islands. But beginning in 1990, small numbers began to arrive in summer to feed on a couple species of krill that have been gradually increasing in number. By 1993, whale watching tours were making regular trips to see these magnificent animals. According to Schulman-Janiger, the 2000 or so Blues that spend the summer off of Santa Barbara represent the largest known population in the world, and one of the few that seems to be growing. Satellite data has demonstrated that many of these whales go south as far as the Pacific waters off of Costa Rica. 

One final gee whiz.  Male Blue Whales have one of the loudest voices in the animal kingdom.  We just can't hear them.  Their sonorous booming is too low pitched for human ears.  This site has an example of the sound sped up 10 times to bring it into the audible range. It can be heard across vast distances.  Researchers have recently noted that in the last few decades, the frequency/pitch of the Blue Whale vocalizations has dropped, (i.e., calls are lower pitched today). No one knows for sure why that it, but some speculate that it is increased competition for mates as their populations rebound. More in this New York Times article.   

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When Pigs Fly!

Recently, while watching Harbor Seals in Alaska, I got to talking to one of the clients, a studious biologist named Chris. He asked me if I had ever heard about a talking Harbor Seal that had been featured on NPR. My eyes widened in disbelief. Chris was a little fuzzy on the details, but as promised, he looked into it once he got home and forwarded me the details. Sure enough, seals can sometimes talk. The celebrity in question was named Hoover, the talking Seal. According to the New England Aquarium website, Hoover was found in Cundy Harbor, Maine in May 1971. Since he was believed to be an orphaned pup, he was cared for by his rescuers, George and Alice Swallow. When he outgrew his bathtub, he was moved to a nearby pond. It was there that the most bizarre thing happened.  Hoover began to imitate human voices. He was soon transferred to the New England Aquarium, where he lived until 1985. He became quite a local celebrity, and was the focus of research into voice acquisition and mimicry in seals. Here are some examples of Hoover's talents. His voice was apparently quite close to that of Mr. Swallow.
Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4

It turns out that the legacy of Hoover lives on somewhat.  His grandson, Chacoda, who currently lives at the New England Aquarium, shares some of the skills of his famous grandfather. Chuck, as he's called by his keepers, is being trained to mimic humans, in part using the recordings of his legendary grandpa. So far he can say "hi" and "how are you?". See here for more info, including a recording of Chacoda working on "How are you?" with a trainer. 

For more information on Hoover, check out the New England Aquarium tribute page here.  The photo of Hoover above first appeared in the Boston Globe. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sei it isn't so!

Recently, I've been in a cetacean frame of mind. My last two trips have had some wonderful whale watching experiences, and I am off in a couple of days to look for Blue Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel northwest of Los Angeles. I really do love the experience of encountering whales in the wild. I've actually been fortunate enough to see a lot of different kinds over the years. But there are a few that have eluded me. Foremost among these is the Sei Whale, an enigmatic species that seems to be pretty elusive. I'm hoping I will just stumble upon one on a pelagic some day, but it doesn't sound like they are very common anywhere. If a hot tip comes along and I can get there...I'm there!

Sei whale is a bit of an enigma anyway. For starters, English speakers can't seem to agree on how to pronounce it, even in print. It is either "say" or "sigh". It also has separate populations in the northern and southern oceans that may represent different species. It is believed to be the fastest of all of the baleen whales, and tends to be an irruptive species, becoming locally common for brief periods in an unpredictable manner. 

On top of everything else, Sei Whale has a close cousin named Bryde's Whale with which it has a long history of being confused.  Now if you think the Sei Whale story is muddled, the Bryde's Whale complex is, well, complex. First of all, it's not "Brides" but rather something like "Broo-dess". But pronouncing its name correctly is just the tip of the iceberg. The holotype specimen was an individual found in Burma in 1878, and given the name Balaenoptera edeni. Another baleen whale taken in 1913 off South Africa was named B. brydei, after a whaler named Johan Bryde, but was later lumped with edeni. Since that time, it has been determined that there are multiple forms of what is known as Bryde's Whale, including a smaller inshore version and a larger pelagic version constituting at least two good species. 

The problem is that no one knows which form the 1878 holotype belongs to. And apparently, no one has been able to get access to it to do the necessary DNA analysis. If it is edeni, then all is right with the world, and the small forms can be called edeni. If it matches the DNA of the larger forms, then they will become edeni, and brydei will become a synonym of edeni, while a new name will need to be chosen for the smaller form. Clear as mud? Good, it gets better!

There is also another form that researchers have tied with Bryde's until recently, namely the uber-enigmatic Omura's Whale, B. omurai. First described in 2003, this form (also named for a whaler) was initially thought to be closely related to Bryde's, and by some perhaps even to be nothing more than an example of the smaller inshore form edeni.  But recent DNA analysis suggests that this is indeed a good species, and not a close cousin to any form of Bryde's Whale at all, but instead one that branched off the baleen whale tree around the time of the Blue Whale, with the Sei, Fin, and Bryde's whales diverging later. 

Incidentally, I have seen Bryde's Whale once off of New Zealand.  Researchers there don't know for sure whether these are smaller inshore or larger offshore types, but the whales measure out to be toward the larger end of the Bryde's spectrum. All of this makes my head spin (heavy sei!). I'll save the muddled mess that is Minke Whale for another post.  The Bryde's Whale image above is from the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society website.  

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gulls and whales today

Today was another day in Newfoundland.  Unlike yesterday, the sun stayed hidden for most of the day, although it was out a bit in the morning.  We had a nice time doing part of the Irish Loop south of St. John's.  At Tors Cove, while taking in the wonderful scene, I noticed that there were some whales spouting offshore.  Well it turns out that there were nearly fifty of these Humpbacks.  I have never seen anything like it.  Spouts were everywhere.  Further on, we looked through some gull flocks and found a nice Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Then at St. Vincent's Beach, many dozens of gulls were feeding actively along the beach.  Among the throng was an Iceland Gull, looking nearly adult, but with a couple of older outer primaries. After leaving there, we drove a short ways down the road to check out some Arctic Terns.  Someone spotted a small gull perched nearby.  Turns out it was a young Little Gull, the second for me in Newfoundland, and one of my favorite gulls. So despite less than perfect weather, it was quite a day of birding. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Just like she said

It happened just like LK said it would. It was my fourth day in the Atlantic Maritimes, and frankly, the weather had been crap so far. I had also been keeping crazy hours in order to get to St. John's, Newfoundland, including a grueling eighteen hour ferry ride. When it wasn't raining, it was so foggy I could not see more than 100 yards out to sea.  But I couldn't stand up anyway, it was THAT windy. I made it through the entire pelagic voyage seeing one bird, a lone Leach's Storm-Petrel battling the elements. So I was ready for a change. Talking to LK last night, she wished me luck on my trip and wished for a beautiful day for our boat ride on Witless bay filled with lots of whales and sun.  And guess what, we had a beautiful, sunny day, and saw lots of whales. The boat trip featured the often fantastic Humpbacks, but also an uncharacteristically curious Minke Whale that spent some time checking us out up close. Throw in an iceberg and a bunch of seabirds, and it was a pretty good trip! The crew was so excited about things, they actually kept us out an hour longer because the whales would not stop performing. Back at the dock they said it was one of the top three whale days they'd ever had. Exaggeration I'm sure, but I've seen a fair few whale shows, and this one was the best I had had on Witless Bay. And to top things off, we headed to Cape Spear in the afternoon. Cape Spear is where North America ends and the next bit of dry land is Ireland. With the Capelin running, the whales were coming in close, including three fantastic Fin Whales. These Fins came so close that we could see their white lower jaws (right side only), and the delicate chevrons across their backs behind their blowholes. It was really awesome. Other than being overheated and bit sunburned, it was the perfect day. I need to talk to LK more often.