Author Archives: rochabob

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. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov 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.

The Museum’s Other Blog Site

We appreciate all of you who take the time to read the NBWM main blog page. It is a quick and informative method of staying apprised of the countless activities taking place here.

However, we have another blog page, populated with posts created by our High School Apprentices. This is the Greenhands blog. After an exceptionally full first semester, we have provided them with time in this semester’s schedule to share their insights into the Museum and into their jobs as apprentices. For most, this is their first experience with blogging, so they are gaining another social media skill.  They have gotten the hang of it quite quickly.

We hope that you will honor their efforts as apprentices and as productive high school students by having a read through some, or all, of their recent posts. We are proud of their work here.

2013-2014 Apprentices. Standing: Trina, Tatiana, Chelsea, Daizha, Paula, Fabio, Josie, Cassie. Seated: Genesis, Reymond, Brandon, Samantha

2013-2014 Apprentices. Standing: Trina, Tatiana, Chelsea, Daizha, Paula, Fabio, Josie, Cassie. Seated: Genesis, Reymond, Brandon, Samantha

Whaling Museum Summer Internships

The New Bedford Whaling Museum receives dozens of inquiries annually from high school, undergraduate and graduate students regarding our internship opportunities. Interns work directly with Museum staff to maintain and manage collections, produce programs events and exhibitions, and on research projects. They provide much needed assistance to the Museum while they learn new skills and often solidify their decisions to work in the museum field.

We are currently accepting applications and résumés through Friday, April 25, for summer 2014 internships. Interested students can visit our website and follow the links to apply. Descriptions of our departments and the possible projects are listed on the page. We plan on making final decisions in the first week of May.

For those of you who have already applied, thank you. We appreciate your interest in our Museum and internship program.

Several of the 2013 summer interns, with Science Director, Robert Rocha.

Several of the 2013 summer interns, with Science Director, Robert Rocha.

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.

A Visit from a Marine Science ‘Ambassador’

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Among the many international guests and patrons that visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum, there have been few as unique as Abby. Abby is visiting us from South Africa and will be leaving shortly to visit the New Bedford Ocean Explorium. Abby is the creation of Heidi de Maine, an aquarist and author from Cape Town, in South Africa. After publishing her children’s book, Abby’s Aquarium Adventures (in 2011), which gives an overview of the life of an aquarist, she wanted to do a bit more to show young people in South Africa about the breadth of careers in field of marine sciences. To quote Heidi, “Through the series of books, marine-related craft kits, Facebook, articles in magazines, talks that I give and her blog (www.abby.co.za), I hope to make Abby a well-known marine ambassador.”  So, she created a doll to look like the main character in her book. The hope was that this doll could travel the world, be hosted by facilities that are marine science and education focused, be photographed in those locations, and have her visit and those professions explained by facility staff.

To that end, Heidi posted a note in September 2011, via the marine educators’ listserve, Scuttlebutt, explaining her project and asking for volunteers to host Abby and then send her along to the next location on the list. I think that the response surprised her.  Facilities in 16 U.S. states and in 16 countries have all said that they would host Abby and use this as an opportunity to promote marine careers. Her visit to New Bedford comes after visiting Alaska, Oregon, California, Mexico, Florida and Georgia. After leaving the City, she will be sent to Gloucester.

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If there’s anything marine educators have learned in their careers, it’s that the general public typically thinks that being a marine biologist means working with dolphins. Any opportunity to expand the public’s understanding of the variety of careers that are connected to the ocean is welcomed.  Maritime history, maritime commerce, whaling history, cetacean biology, artifact conservation in a museum like ours, preservation of nautical charts, exhibit design and skeletal articulation all require an understanding of the marine environment.  We use our skeletons and whale related facts and artifacts to teach food webs, biology, classification, geography and mathematics to both students and teachers.

Thus, we photographed Abby with fourth graders from Rochester Memorial School and in various locations around the Museum. We hope that by featuring some of our artifacts, including the world’s largest ship model and largest exhibition of scrimshaw, we might spark an interest in a museum career in some of the students who read Heidi and Abby’s blog. More importantly we hope that their visits to this blog site as Abby travels from place to place will foster a better understanding of our global ocean and will encourage them to be stewards of this resource.

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A Small but Critical Victory for Right Whales

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Phoenix and calf. Sea to Shore Alliance photo.

Five years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enacted a seasonal ship strike rule to protect migrating, endangered North Atlantic right whales (NARW). This rule requires that vessels 65 feet (19.8m) or longer limit themselves to a maximum speed of 10 mph (16 kph) in designated zones (Seasonal Management Areas) during specified periods of time. For the Northeast, that meant January 1 – March 15 in Cape Cod Bay, March 1 – April 30 off Race Pt in Provincetown and April 1 – July 31 in the Great South Channel. The time frames for the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast reflect the months that NARWs are expected to be in those regions. This rule, proven to be effective so far, was important for the protection of this critically endangered species, the population of which is estimated at approximately 500 animals.

However, the rule had an end date attached to it, December 9, 2013. A year ago, the NBWM hosted colleagues from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (Provincetown) Center for Coastal Studies, Humane Society of the U.S., Rhode Island Audubon and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to announce a campaign to convince NOAA to drop the end date (also known as a sunset clause) from this rule. We debuted the campaign video ‘Act Right Now Save a Species’, held a panel discussion, and made a petition available for signature by any citizen. In the past year, over 145,000 comments were sent to NOAA and 75,000+ people signed the petition.

Today NOAA announced that it has dropped the sunset clause from the Ship Strike Rule, thus making the rule permanent.  Collisions between whales and vessels are typically fatal. Two of the skeletons that hang in our Museum, the North Atlantic right whale with fetus, and the blue whale were killed by vessel strikes. By forcing vessels to slow down during those times when NARWs are expected to be in a given area, both whales and mariners have greater opportunity to steer clear of each other. This is a win-win situation and has proven to be much less of a burden on vessel operators than previously estimated.

The issue of entanglement has yet to be solved. But on a rainy day, NOAA’s decision is indeed a bright beam of excellent news for an endangered species and for the dozens of people who dedicate themselves to studying and protecting the North Atlantic right whale.