Tag Archives: fin whale

Iceland Whaling Company Using Whale Oil for Fuel

Illustration of fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), by Uko Gorter.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Illustration by Uko Gorter.

This morning we posted a Guardian (UK) story on our Facebook page about Iceland’s lone whaling company combining oil extracted from endangered fin whales with marine oil to power their fleet. Another publication, Wildlife Extra News has picked up on this story as well.

Hvalur is the only whaling company in Iceland. Their CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, is a veteran of the whaling industry, having started as an observer on his father’s whale ships in 1956. In a June 2010 story, published by Google News and AFP (and posted on our Bulletin Board that month), he made his attitude towards whales quite clear while in attendance at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Morocco. “Whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else…If they are so intelligent why don’t they stay outside of Iceland’s territorial waters?”

Iceland has increased their quota this year for fin whales, the second largest species of whale and historically the most hunted of the great whales. In compiling the data from the IWC database, and recent reports by researcher Yulia Ivashchenko of corrected Soviet whaling harvest totals, I estimate that approximately 900,000 fin whales were killed globally via factory whaling methods between 1900-2000.  Unlike Japan, which does its harvesting under the heading of Scientific Whaling, Iceland makes no such claims. Their hunt is strictly commercial, with their sales going mainly to Japan and to tourists who visit Iceland. Iceland and Norway both hunt commercially in defiance of the voluntary moratorium agreed to by IWC members in 1983 and enacted in full in 1986.

Mr. Loftsson’s claim that this new fuel mix should be considered a green biofuel is ludicrous. Utilizing an endangered species to cut down on use of fossil fuels to then hunt more of that same species serves no benefit to the marine environment.  Chris Butler-Stroud, the Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), summarized the duplicitous nature of this strategy, “This is a completely absurd, perverse and unethical move by an industry that is already steeped in the blood of whales, and which is now prepared to use the remains of dead whales to keep its own vessels afloat.”

Sensory Organ Discovered in Jaws of Rorqual Whales

Blue whale study done by Richard Ellis, in preparation for Jacobs Gallery mural. The distinctive throat pleats of all rorquals are clearly visible in this image. From NBWM collections, 2000.10.

Another exciting discovery has been made by cetacean biologists, this time in one of the four Families of the suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales).  The Balaenopteridae are also called rorquals, a reference to the throat pleats that run from chin to the middle of their bodies.  The term rorqual is based on the Norwegian word royrkval, which means ‘furrowed whale’.

Rorquals are the largest family of baleen whales, consisting of nine species, including the blue and humpback, which are represented in our Jacobs Family Gallery, and the fin and minke, which are commonly seen during whale watch tours in Massachusetts waters.  They all feed by gulping large amounts of water into their expandable throats and then forcing that water through their 500-800 plates of baleen back into the ocean. The animals that are left behind, typically krill or small fish, then get swallowed. This process is also known as lunge feeding. It requires an incredible amount of muscle power, since the whales are working against immense volumes of water. We all know how hard it is to run through water. Imagine trying to swim through it with your mouth open, a mouth that takes up 20% of your body length.

Several articles published on Wednesday, including this one, explain how the newly discovered sensory organ, located between the tips of the mandibles, regulates the feeding process.

The actual scientific paper that reports the discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature. For those who want a more scientific explanation, the abstract from that paper, authored by the Smithsonian’s Nick Pyenson, and several others, can be viewed here.  Mr. Pyenson was one of the people summoned to the Atacama Region of Chile last year when a highway project unearthed dozens of fossil whale skeletons, and they had to be removed and taken away quickly.

The next time you’re at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in the Jacobs Family Gallery, take a look at the lower jaws of the blue and humpback whale skeletons. You’ll notice that the lower jaws, unlike toothed whales or humans, are not connected at the tip (symphysis). In between those mandibles would be the organ described in the article. If you look at the North Atlantic Right Whale you’ll notice the same lack of fusing between mandibles. However, since right whales are not rorquals (they don’t have throat pleats) they would not have this sensory organ.

Whale Watching at the Edge of the Fog

Despite the looming fog on Saturday morning (May 21), fourteen of us boarded a school bus in front of the WM at 8:00 am to be deposited at Captain John and Sons Whale Watch in Plymouth, for a 9:00 am departure.  Three others met us there. We were greeted by my longtime friend and colleague, Carol ‘Krill’ Carson, from Bridgewater State University, as well as New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance volunteers Leah Horeanopolous (creator the logo for this year’s Natl Marine Educators Association conference) and Christopher – last name unknown to me. Within a few minutes we were on our way. We later found Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society colleagues Monica and Lydia in the bridge, preparing for their data collection.

Nine of the twelve Museum Apprentices were part of this group, along with two siblings. Of these eleven teens, only two had been on a whale watch. One of those was too young to remember.  So, there was much anticipation, and much hoping that the fog would dissipate.

As it turns out, we would only see one large whale, but we got to spend several minutes with it. It was a female fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) named Loon, which had first been seen in the mid-1970s.  We got great looks at her broad back, distinctively nicked up dorsal fin and could see and hear her breathe through her enormous blowholes.  As much as we would have enjoyed seeing a greater number of whales, getting this close to an endangered species was a special experience.

Not to be overlooked, several harbor porpoises were seen on both the outgoing and incoming trips. Bird life included northern gannet, Wilson storm-petrel, sooty shearwater, common loon and a bedraggled parula warbler. We were greeted by sunlight as we returned to the dock.

Thank you to the CJB crew, NECWA, our friends at WDCS for setting up the trip and to all of those who attended. If you’d like to see pics from the trip, visit the CJB blog.