Whale Disturbance Ahead

“FFS, leave me alone. How’d you like it if I barged in during your dinner hour?”
So humpback whales off Australia are being disturbed by swimmers:
Authorities in northern Western Australia are warning amateur boaties they are risking their lives by attempting to swim with humpback whales off the Ningaloo Coast.

The coastal town of Exmouth is in its second year of commercial humpback whale swimming trials, but the trials seem to have prompted some people to try to approach humpback whales in dinghies and on jet skis instead of with accredited operators.

That is not really news, or surprising to me. But what caught my eye is the attempt (increasingly common) by the commercial side to claim a clear line between safe, non-invasive, commercial whale-bothering and public whale-bothering. There is no question that commercial outfits on the whole are probably safer, more knowledgeable and less invasive (though their livelihood depends on getting everyone in close) than your average yahoo on a jetski. But the idea that whales are disturbed and disrupted by the public, and not by the commercial operations, is ludicrous.
It’s great that humanity is shifting its entertainment dollars away from captive display. But I am fearful that we are at the beginning of a profit-driven, mass human invasion of the wild. These humpbacks are there to breed, not to have to deal with snorkelers, just as spinner dolphins in Hawaii are inshore to rest (and need to be left alone).
It’s time to start setting some clear guidelines and codes of practice that are much more animal-friendly than those we have now. I’d start with no combustion engines, no large groups, no trace left. The core ethic would emphasize getting out into the wild for the sake of getting out into the wild, with no demands and expectations of what you might see or experience.

Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

More Whale Fantasies

Whales are beautiful and transfixing. So it’s no surprise that increasingly they star in lots of videos. And the videos are sometimes pretty great to look at.

But I have to admit to a feeling of unease when I watch these sorts of videos. I like that we hear from the thought-provoking Alan Watts.

But what are these videos really about?

Do viewers come away more knowledgeable about the plight of whales, or simply gratified and ready to move onto the next viewing experience?

Do they notice the dying coral, dappled with algae, and connect it to human culture, or is their attention entirely consumed by bikini-clad divers?

Do they wonder what the whales think of having their tranquil spaces invaded by video production teams?

Are the whales anything other than props for a slick GoPro promotion?

Sorry to ask. But I have a hard time watching all the ways in which we use the natural beauty of the world and its creatures for our own purposes. Because our preoccupation with our own lives, our own commerce, our own feelings, and its impact on everything else on the planet is the backdrop I increasingly see in all these whale videos.

Ship Strike = (Another) Dead Humpback

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Every loss is a sad one, but this one is especially so:

They called her Istar.

The humpback whale that washed up dead on an East Quogue beach last week was well known to scientists and the whale community as a fertile mother tracked since 1976, researchers said this week.

Istar, named after Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian fertility goddess, mothered at least 11 calves, including two in consecutive years, 1988 and 1989, something previously undocumented, said Jooke Robbins, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

“I won’t lie, it’s not really easy,” Robbins said. “Istar is just an individual known for so long, as such a productive whale. She’s a big favorite for so many people.”

Istar was at least 41 years old, measured at 48 feet long and was estimated to weigh 30 to 35 tons, researchers said.

While her cause of death is still under investigation, the whale had massive cranial damage consistent with a ship strike, said Kimberly Durham, rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation, which performed the necropsy.

I wonder what was on that ship. How important was it? How slow would ships have to go in the whale corridors to reduce the lethality of ship strikes? What would that cost?

Humpback Learnin’

Just one more data point in my broader theory that the more we study animals in general, and cetaceans in specific, the smarter we realize they are.

From NatGeo:

Whether it’s learning a new song, figuring out how to use tools to forage for food, or picking up the local customs, learning from others is an important part of life for many animals, including people.

The idea of a culture or traditions—behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning—in cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, has been controversial.

But a new study finds strong evidence that a group of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine (map) is sharing a newly observed feeding behavior via their social networks. (See related blog: “Sharks Have Social Networks, Learn From Friends.”)

That behavior, called lobtail feeding, was first recorded in one whale in the Gulf of Maine in 1980. Since then, 278 humpback whales—out of about 700 observed individuals that frequent the Stellwagen Bank (map) area—have employed the strategy, according to the study, published this week in the journal Science.

What’s surprising to me is not that humpbacks learn from each other. What’s surprising is that we continue to be surprised at all the complex thinking and learning non-human animals do. It’s a reflection of how strong our bias in favor of human exceptionalism is.

One interesting point is that lobtail feeding appears to be a form of adaptation to changes in prey availability:

Lobtail feeding is a variation on a technique called bubble-net feeding, which is used by humpbacks around the world.

In bubble-net feeding, a whale blows bubbles into a kind of net surrounding the prey, corralling them into dense schools. Then the whale lunges up through the school with its jaws wide open, scooping up mouthfuls of food. (Watch a video that shows humpbacks bubble-net feeding.)

In lobtail feeding, the humpback slaps the surface of the water one to four times with the underside of its tail before diving down and blowing the bubble net. Rendell speculates the slaps may keep its sand lance prey from jumping out of the water, away from the whale.

“The origin of this behavior was strongly associated with the collapse of herring stocks and a boom in sand lance stock,” said Rendell. So he and his team suggest that lobtail feeding came about when humpbacks switched from hunting herring to catching sand lances, a type of fish.

So it’s a good thing that humpbacks are smart enough to adapt their hunting strategies and learn from one another. Because humans will continue to impact the oceans and prey they depend on.

This humpback is no doubt glad we are so impressed, but probably wishes he would be left alone to dine in peace:

Whales vs. Ships

Keeping them out of each other’s way is a complicated business:

A first-of-its-kind study matching whale habitat to Southern California shipping lanes shows that two species, humpback and fin whales, might suffer fewer ship strikes if a new lane were created.

But the solution is not quite so simple for blue whales. These giants of the sea appear to be in the most trouble from ship strikes, and would be unlikely to benefit from any change in the four shipping lanes the study considered.

The scientists who conducted the study also estimated that more blue whales are being struck off the Southern California coast than their population can sustain without raising the risk of depletion.

“At best, the blue whale population is remaining steady,” said Jessica Redfern, a marine ecologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service and the study’s lead author. “Of the three, we’re probably the most concerned about blue whales.”

All three species examined in the study are listed as endangered. The scientists used data on conditions in the marine environment, along with whale sighting records, to map out the most likely habitat for each species.

Four shipping routes were then superimposed over the habitat maps. The result: the clearest picture yet of the places on the Southern California coast where ships and whales are most likely to collide.

The findings reveal the intricate interweaving of ocean corridors used by humans and the massive sea mammals.

The route that presents the least risk to humpback whales, for example, poses the highest risk for fin whales. The reverse also is true.

Humpbacks tend to concentrate farther north, fins farther south.

“Something in the center there seems like it may be good for ameliorating the risks for both species,” Redfern said, though the study does not make specific recommendations about shifts in shipping lanes.

Blue whales, however, occur throughout the area along all four shipping routes, spread so evenly that concentrating shipping in any one of the four routes seemed unlikely to reduce their risk.

Here’s how it looks on paper:

Moving shipping lanes around, especially if it costs shipping companies money, is not an easy ask. Whales–dead or alive–don’t show up on a shipping company’s balance sheet. But shipping slowdowns and re-routing on the Atlantic coast have helped reduce some right whale deaths.

When whale populations are so fragile, and whales are so majestic and intelligent, each life saved is especially important. Shipping companies might resist, but they can pass the incremental cost on to customes. And if that induces people to buy less stuff shipped halfway around the world, then that’s not a bad thing, either.

Inadvertent Whaling

An interesting study recently confirmed something sad that I have suspected for years: that despite the fact that humans are actively trying to protect whales in the North Atlantic, human culture and human lifestyles are so intrusive and damaging that we still end up killing whales.

This comes from a story in Nature:

Human activity is still killing right whales, one of the most endangered animals in the ocean. An analysis of four decades of whale deaths shows that attempts to prevent them have not had a demonstrable impact.

Only around 460 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are thought to be swimming the waters off the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. The governments of both countries have implemented several measures to protect whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear or being hit by ships, such as the US ‘ship strike rule’ that limits vessel speeds in certain areas. That rule came into force in 2008 and is due to expire next year.

Marine-mammal researchers Julie van der Hoop and Michael Moore, both at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and their colleagues, analysed all known deaths of eight species of large whale in the northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. During that time 122 right whales died, along with 473 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), 257 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and scores of whales of other species. When the authors were able to assign a cause of death, ‘human interactions’ was the most common, appearing in 67% of cases. Entanglement in fishing gear was the main cause of death in this category.

The protection measures seem to have had no impact on whale deaths, according to the study published online in Conservation Biology1. Although several of the rules were implemented only towards the end of the study period, Moore still admits that the finding is “hugely disappointing”.

We can decry the age of whaling, in which humans were wiping whales out one after the other. But that was an age when the killing was both intentional and highly technological. It’s almost scarier to think that the way humans live today means that whales die, even though we (mostly) don’t want them to. In other words, there is something deeply wrong about the way in which we live today.

The main culprit appears to be our fishing practices, which are egregious enough in terms of what they do to fish stocks, quite apart from how they affect whales (and all the other species which also become collateral damage).

I feel the same way about industrial fishing as I do about industrial farming, though industrial fishing does not seem to attract the same intense opposition–perhaps because fish are not considered as intelligent and sentient as farm animals. But that certainly doesn’t mean that industrial fishing isn’t as environmentally shortsighted, and criminally wasteful (and in many instances it is cruel, as well).

But whatever you think about the emotional lives of ocean fish, and the moral issues around killing them, it’s hard not to sympathize with whales that get entangled or killed by fishing equipment. And judging from the reaction of this humpback, anything we can do to further limit the damage to whales from fishing would be much appreciated.