Category Archives: Whales

Visualizing Whale Sounds

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

As we get better acquainted with the sounds cetaceans make, researchers look for innovative ways to analyze and interpret what is being heard. Recent articles, including this one by Science News for Students, based on a recent publication in Science Communication, a recent interview by NPR featuring Katy and Roger Payne, as well as the article featured below, indicate that language has structure and can be learned.  This then drives research into whale culture and social structure. Hal Whitehead, from Dalhousie University, has been studying sperm whale social structure for decades (see Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean, published in 2003). He will speak on this topic here on Tuesday, November 10, during our Whales in the Heart of the Sea lecture series.

One of the most interesting facets of this research is the use of spectrograms to visualize the sounds being made. Being the sight-focused species that we are, this visual representation of the sounds enhances our ability to recognize patterns, if indeed there are any.

What is a Spectrogram

This recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, featuring the work of David Rothenburg in Medium, combines spectrogram, sound and art to depict recognizable audio patterns as colorful shapes. We still don’t know what the male humpback was trying communicate with these vocalizations, but it’s clear that the sounds are not random meanderings.

The legacy of marine mammal sound recording started by William Schevill and William Watkins 60 years ago continues with new technology and new interpretive techniques. We will continue to follow these trends as the new stewards of the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data.

A Scoop of …. with Your Ice Cream

Whaling became a global industry because there was a need, and thus a market, for the products derived from blubber and baleen. Lamps, lighthouses and streetlights were all lit with one form or another of whale oil. Spermaceti candles were a valued commodity because they burned cleanly without smoke. Lubricants were made from the blubber and jaw pads of toothed whales. Corset stays, collar stiffeners, leaf springs and other products were sliced out of baleen. But, perhaps the most unusual source of a whale-based product is the black, tarry substance secreted by the intestines of male sperm whales. This unusual biological creation is known as ambergris, French for gray amber.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Sperm whales eat lots of squid. Squid digest well, except for their beaks. If the whale doesn’t vomit the beaks they will pass through the three stomachs into the intestines. The sharp edges of the beak most likely irritate the inner walls of the intestines. Thus, some sperm whales, apparently only males, secrete the ambergris to coat the sharp edges of the beaks. Eventually the lump of beaks, ambergris and other digestive tract material find their way out the back end of the whale. Once in the water, which is colder than the inside of a whale, the ambergris becomes much more of a solid. Exposure to air and salt can oxidize the lump and lighten its color to gray rather than black, hence the name.

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Some of us here have wondered who first figured out that a substance (a protein called ambrein) could be extracted from these lumps and used in perfumes as a fixative for color and aroma. What types of experiments were he/she/they doing? Did they know the source of this ambergris? Were they searching for something else?

We do know that ambergris has been used in food, burned as incense and used as an aphrodisiac for centuries. However, I think it may come as a surprise to learn that the first known recorded recipe for ice cream would include ambergris, or ambergreece, as it’s written in the recipe, as a potential ingredient.

The story of the origin of ice cream is a fun read anyway. You can listen to a podcast on Gastropod or read their article. But, to know that a substance that comes out of the back end of a whale was part of the original recipe is amusing. People have mixed it into their eggs and shaved it on top of their port wine. But, if it finds its way back into ice cream, it will have to happen in another country. Use of ambergris, and all other marine mammal products has been outlawed in the U.S. since 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect.

World Oceans Day

In honor of World Oceans Day, we would like to share links to two video clips featuring the most acrobatic of all whale species, the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

The first, from, features a calf trying unsuccessfully to emulate its mother. The second is a clip from the Huffington Post from 2014. It features drone footage, a research tool growing in popularity because of the access it affords in watching whale behaviors.

As you view these clips please think about the whales’ habitat and how the actions of all us impact, positively or negatively, where they live. The simple action of properly disposing of trash so that it doesn’t get into waterways protects all ocean animals.

The oceans regulate planetary chemistry, dictate weather and climate, are the ultimate source of our drinking water (think water cycle) and cover nearly 3/4 of the planet’s surface. Despite the name ‘Earth’ we really are the water planet. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be stewards of our global ocean.

Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

The following post is part of a series of blogs created for the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook. Three organizations (WDC, ASRI, NBWM) from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meet monthly to create and update right whale related curriculum, discuss important issues related to the NARW and devise ways to bring awareness to the precarious status of the population of this highly endangered species. The FB page is a result of these meetings.

Because the Whaling Museum hosted the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon earlier this month, it was deemed appropriate to weave Eubalaena glacialis and Herman Melville together, something he first did in 1851. However, in 2015, it has been done in a more contemporary form of print media.

Two North Atlantic right whales. ( photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. ( photo)

When Moby-Dick was published in 1851, confusion still existed as to which whales were Right whales and which were later to be known as Bowhead whales. In Chapter 32, Cetology, Melville attacks the topic of whale taxonomy like a librarian, splitting up the whales based on size. Thus, the known whales were split into three groups: Folio Whales, Octavo Whales and Duodecimo Whales.

Our whale is considered as Chapter 2 of the Folio Whales and is called a Right Whale. “In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as “whale oil”, an inferior article in commerce.”

However, it becomes clear immediately that there is confusion as to which whale he is trying to describe, “Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; The Black Whale; The Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; The Growlands Walfish of the Swedes.”

The text that follows makes it clear that rights and bowheads are being conflated, “It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor’ West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.”

Later in the story in Chapter 58, Brit, however, there is no confusion as to which species they see while sailing north east of the Crozetts (small islands directly south of Madagascar). “On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a sperm whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip.”

Two paragraphs later he captures the experience of most people the first time they see any species of right whale in the water, “Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else….And when recognized at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, on all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.”

Melville later dedicates an entire chapter, #75, to describing the head of a right whale. “So, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.”

Luckily the science of cetacean taxonomy has come a long way since the mid -1800s and there’s no confusion as to which whales are Eubalaena glacialis and which are Balaena mysticetus.  We have also long settled the discussion as to whether or not whales are fish. Just before he dives into his book-focused classification of cetaceans, Melville states, “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.”

There are many intentionally funny moments in Moby-Dick. This one was not written to be humorous, but has become quite laughable. That being said, Moby-Dick has stood the test of time to become one of the humankind’s classic stories. It has put whales in the consciousness of thousands of people, including those who attend the Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon each January. Perhaps some of you will join us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

Remarkable Photographs

Here’s a great way to start the week, with some excellent photography and a Guinness world record.  The waters of New England are too plankton rich to allow for such pictures. Of course, the plankton is the reason why the whales come to MA coastal waters to feed. That microalgae creates the energy needed for the food chains that support our feeding whales. It just makes cetacean photography a bit more challenging.

From The Daily Telegraph, Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer Darren Jew: AUSTRALIAN underwater photographer Darren Jew waited decades to capture these magnificent images of whales swimming with free-diving record-holder Ai Futaki off the coast of Tonga.

The last photo in the series is an excellent face-to-face image. You get a close-up view of the tubercles (the round bumps) on the whale’s head. Each tubercle has a sensory hair in it. Enjoy.

Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer


Cetaceans’ Salty Taste Buds

According to recent articles published by ScienceNOW and Smithsonian, researchers have discovered that the taste buds of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) only sense salty flavors. The other receptors have been shut off or have mutated. Thus, they are likely not able to taste unnatural flavors in the water, such as toxins, which are often bitter.  As the ScienceNOW article points out, and we emphasize here when discussing how cetaceans eat, these animals swallow their food whole, thus eliminating much of the need to taste the food.

The two articles referenced above are based on research published in Genome Biology and Evolution. Zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China led the study.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Right Whale Day Starts April Vacay!

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

The New Bedford Whaling Museum will kick off April vacation week kicks off with the annual Right Whale Day celebration on Monday, April 21. Every year, the Museum celebrates the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and raises awareness of a species whose survival depends upon humans wisely using ocean resources. This family friendly event provides many fun learning activities for kids and adults, with a focus on fostering greater awareness and appreciation.

Guests are invited to walk inside a life-sized inflatable right whale and stand next to a life-sized inflatable right whale calf for a photo. Take the coastal obstacle course challenge where participants attempt to survive the dangers right whales face in their migrations. Test your observation skills by identifying individual whales based on their markings. Learn to draw a right whale with author/artist, Peter Stone. End the day with a slice of “right whale cake”. The fun starts at 10:00 a.m. under the massive right whale skeleton on permanent exhibit in the Jacobs Family Gallery.

Right Whale Day schedule:

10:00 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. – Right Whale Obstacle Course (presented by the Museum’s high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Go Inside the Inflatable Whale (presented by Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Make Right Whale Magnets & Whale Origami (presented by the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Right Whale Crafts & Learning Activities (presented by Museum docents & high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Inflatable Right Whale Calf, Right Whale Information  & Photo-Op with the Right Whale Calf (presented by the NOAA Office of Education)

11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –  Right Whale Identification Activities (presented by Museum volunteers)

11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. –  “Waltzes with Giants” readings with author/artist Peter Stone

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Learn to draw right whales with Peter Stone

1:35 p.m. –  Celebrate the now-permanent ‘Ship Strike Rule’ with some Right Whale cake

Vacation Week Activities –  Join the Museum throughout April vacation week for crafts, hands-on activities and lots of family fun. Participate in a highlights tour, go below deck on the world’s largest model whaleship, learn to throw a harpoon, create your own scrimshaw (with soap and shoe polish), and more.

The following April vacation week activities will take place from Tuesday, April 22 through Friday, April 25:

10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – Free crafts and family activities. Create your own scrimshaw (using soap and shoe polish), throw a harpoon with our family-friendly harpoons and target rings, and more.

11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. –  Participate in a 45-minute highlights tour with a Museum Docent. Tours leave from the front desk. (Regular admission rates apply)

10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  Free film “Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship” in Cook Memorial Theater. “Ocean Frontiers” is an engaging, inspirational film that features four very different, but equally important success stories of ocean stewardship, including one that is taking place in Massachusetts Bay.

11:00 a.m. to Noon Go below deck on the Lagoda! (Regular admission rates apply)

Friday, April 25, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  All aboard the Lagoda! Join the crew of Captain C. Weade on board the Lagoda for an adventure on the high seas! Travel the world, interact with new cultures, learn the ropes of a whaleship, and go a-whaling. (Regular admission rates apply).

Right Whale Day activities and April Vacation Week activities that take place in Jacobs Family Gallery, Cook Memorial Theater or on the Museum Plaza are FREE. Regular admission to all other galleries applies. Children must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, call 508-997-0064 or visit


Locking Tusks Over Narwhals

This great piece by Carl Zimmer of National Geographic delves into the question “What is the purpose of a narwhal’s tusk?” This has been debated for centuries. The newest hypothesis comes from Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. He believes it is a sensory organ, since it has nerves running throughout its length. This tusk could conceivably assist the animal in making sense of its surroundings.  His findings are published in The Anatomical Record.

Kristin Laidre, from University of Washington, who has done her own fair share of narwhal research, believes that the tusk has more of a macho function. Male deer and elk have antlers, male rhinos have horns, male narwhals have tusks.

This is a good debate. Perhaps they’re both correct. We shall see.

"Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA" , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

“Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA” , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

Will San Diego’s Captive Orcas Be Released?

A lawmaker from San Diego, California has proposed eliminating all shows at Sea World that involve captive orcas (Orcinus orca), often called killer whales.  This measure would also do away with any and all captivity of this species, including any captive breeding programs. His concern is with the size of the enclosures, the change in behavior seen in captive orcas and the complete disassociation of these animals from their natural behaviors and natural habitat. Other lawmakers in SoCal are chiming in as well, as seen and heard here.  It is quite clear why and how the battle lines are being drawn. 

Orca poster, published in Germany by Conrad Kayser. From NBWM Kendall collection.

Orca poster, published in Germany by Conrad Kayser. From NBWM Kendall collection.