Whales

Courtesy of Switgard Duesterloh

In this NOAA photo these two eastern North Pacific Right whales were recently sighted south of Kodiak.

Summer is waning and fall is upon us with brisk days, pretty fall colors, new videos of fat bears as they are getting ready for winter, and the stink of decaying salmon.

In the world of fisheries biology the survey season is closing, and there was much to report this year. I will leave the discussion of king and snow crab declines to those better qualified than me, realizing that there is a lot of money, businesses, livelihoods and emotions involved. In the frenzy of the devastating crab stock development, the other news did not receive as much attention, so I want to dedicate this column to the good news that hailed from NOAA’s Gulf of Alaska Marine Mammal survey this summer.

 When you are standing in the wheelhouse of a vessel, you have a great view of the ocean surface. If the light is good it is easy to see the telltale steam clouds called blows that announce the presence of whales from far away. The more practiced observer can tell by the shape and height of the blow which whale species is out there. Even though whales are huge, most of the time we only see a tiny section of their body, while the impressive main mass is hidden below the surface.

Whales are marine mammals and need to come to the surface to breathe. Over their long evolutionary history, their nose or blow hole has traveled to the back of their head and they have lost the ability to move their heads at the neck. The only exception are beluga whales, which are in part so endearing to us because they can tilt their heads sideways to look at us.

 The researchers peering through binoculars from the NOAA vessel Oscar Dyson this summer must have been really excited when they saw whale blows shaped like a distinct V. To blow a V you need two blow holes, like two nostrils that are pointed a little sideways.

All the baleen whales have two blow holes, while all the toothed whales only have one. Baleen whales include the larger whales like the blue whale, fin whale, sei, minke and humpback, while the toothed whales include the orca, porpoises (we have a Dall’s porpoise and a harbor porpoise here) as well as the beluga and narwhal. Sperm whales are also toothed whales but only have teeth on their lower jaw, and gray whales are baleen whales but are a bit different from the rest of the group because they use their baleen to sieve through mud rather than gulping down big sips of water like humpbacks do.

 The excitement on the Oscar Dyson was due to the fact that it is a very rare and special event to witness the whales that blow the V. These were Right whales of the eastern North Pacific population. There are Right whales in the North Pacific, there are Right whales in the North Atlantic and there are Right whales in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

The name “Right whale” stems from the whaling days, where these whales were hunted extensively for their valued blubber and their long pieces of baleen, which was worked into a multitude of products including umbrellas and ladies’ corsets. The oil was used to grease the engines of the upcoming industrial age. The whale also makes the life of a whale hunter easier by conveniently remaining afloat after death, which allowed early Native hunters to drag it to the beach after killing it.

 According to a NOAA Fisheries news article from Sept. 9, there are an estimated 100 or less individual Right whales left in the North Pacific. These are from two different stocks; the eastern and western stock. Alaskan waters are part of the eastern stock habitat and there are only about 30 whales in this stock making the recently sighted Right whales some of the most vulnerable to extinction.

On this summer’s marine mammal survey, the scientists saw two pairs of two, in total four different Right whales. Photographs can help whale biologists identify individual whales, and they concluded that while two of the whales were in their database the other two were new, previously unrecorded whales.

That is a big deal. Both sightings were close to Kodiak: The first two Right whales were in Barnabas trench, where an upwelling ocean current supports an abundance of krill, one of the whale’s favorite food sources. The other two whales were 30 nautical miles south of the Trinity Islands to the South of Kodiak. 

When COVID forced me to work from home in the summer of 2019, I was given an assignment to read up on the ecosystem and fisheries connections in the North Atlantic, studying the rise and fall of populations from data collections of tiny plankton to big whales over several decades. While anyone from the New England area is probably well familiar with the plight of the North Atlantic Right whale it was news to me.

The Atlantic Right whale population is on a steep decline with only 400 whales estimated remaining and of those less than 100 are breeding females. Moreover, the rate of incidences of Right whales getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by boats is taking a sad toll. While the news is not looking positive for the Pacific and Atlantic Right whales, it seems that the Southern population around Antarctica is in better shape, and their numbers are increasing. Presently there are an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 Southern Right whales. 

But there is something special about the Right whales sighted near Kodiak that has never been observed in Atlantic or Southern Right Whales: apparently our whales are rappers! The above-mentioned NOAA news article has a link to a recording taken of their “whale song.” Chief scientist Jessica Crance is credited with being the one who first heard the music. However, if you have the eerie intonations of humpback whales to compare it to this song is more of a rap. Right whales make a series of gunshot noises with the occasional grunt thrown in. 

Why are four sightings of rare whales a big deal? Is it even justified to spend tax dollars on researching the last remaining big whales in a big changing ocean when the world has been squirming with significant problems affecting almost everyone?

These are fair questions to ask and as for humanity as a whole we may never agree on the issues. However, last week I was in a classroom with kids ranging in age from 5 to 12 and I asked them what — if they could choose any topic related to the ocean — they would be most interested in learning about. The first and most given answer of all was “whales” (followed by sharks). Even if we have no way to measure and express the importance of whales in numbers, there seems to be a deep-seated need to connect with these last remaining giants of the ocean depths with their intelligent eyes and their absolutely amazing size spouting geysers at the water surface.

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