The Wonder Of Whales (And Nature)

A beautiful homage to the infinite complexity of Nature, and a reminder that it is hubris to act as if we understand the most subtle workings of the planet.

From the summary:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

When whales were at their historic populations, before their numbers were reduced, it seems that whales might have been responsible for removing tens of millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Whales change the climate. The return of the great whales, if they are allowed to recover, could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering. It could undo some of the damage we have done, both to the living systems of the sea, and to the atmosphere.

Everything we do has implications for the planet and its regulatory systems. Tread lightly, lightly…

(h/t Cetacean News Network)

The Virgin Pledge** (**Including Loopholes And Caveats)

After months of deliberation, Sir Richard Branson has finally settled on the language of the pledge he wants captive facilities to make if they would like to continue to do business with Virgin companies. Here is how the Virgin Pledge reads:


While Branson and Virgin should get credit for at least engaging on this issue, and while this pledge would mean that a marine park can’t just buy a Taiji dolphin and continue to do business with Virgin, that’s about all it achieves. If you caught lots of wild dolphins for your shows before February 2014, no problem. If you engage in breeding loans with marine parks that capture wild dolphins and killer whales, no problem as long as the animal you are importing wasn’t wild caught (though it can be the offspring of a wild dolphin or whale, allowing your breeding program to benefit from wild captures). So the limitations it places on marine parks are quite narrow. Perhaps that’s why many, including SeaWorld, have already signed the pledge.

More problematic is the fact that the pledge is riddled with potential loopholes, for “rehabilitation,” “rescue,” and (this one could eventually be massive) “support for endangered species.”

The pledge says that rehab of injured or stranded wild dolphins or whales is okay, as long as you go to the trouble of at least pretending that you intend to try and follow rehab with release. But if you don’t happen to follow through, then feel free to go ahead and use the rehabbed animal in your shows and in your breeding program. Sorry, Morgan.

Rescue is similar. If a government authority deems your rescued dolphin or killer whale non-releasable, you are good to go. Shows, breeding, whatever.

What is not clear is whether a “rehabilitation” animal needs a government agency to say the animal can’t be released (making the animal a “rescue” animal?) in order for a facility to keep the animal. Or whether the simple declared intention to rehab and release is enough for Virgin to continue doing business with you if you decide circumstances have changed and you can’t release your rehabbed dolphin or whale. If the latter, then the “rescue” provision pretty much does nothing.

In some ways, that distinction doesn’t really matter. If Sir Richard and Virgin had dug deep enough into the issue of rehab and rescue they would have discovered that it is without question a backdoor into captivity for at least a proportion of wild animals, often with the willing assent of government authorities who for decades have sided with the marine parks over conservation groups when it comes to deciding whether an animal is releasable or not.

The last exception, “Support For Endangered Species” sounds like it could develop into a significant loophole, though we’ll have to see how Virgin chooses to interpret its language. These days, many wild captures or import permit requests claim that bringing a wild animal into captivity will help conserve it in the wild. However, most dolphin species (including most killer whale populations), and many whale species are not listed as endangered.

So what will this exception mean in practice? If the Georgia Aquarium succeeds in reversing the National Marine Fisheries Service denial of its request to import 18 wild-caught belugas, would Virgin stop doing business with Georgia Aquarium? Georgia Aquarium, notably, has not yet signed Virgin’s pledge. But SeaWorld has. Would SeaWorld be able to “borrow” some of Georgia Aquarium’s wild-caught belugas and claim this exemption by arguing it will be helping conserve wild beluga populations? If it could then the exemption will open up a pretty big door into captivity for wild-caught animals, especially as wild populations continue to come under pressure from pollution, noise and climate change.

Here’s the bottom line. Virgin says that “our core objective was to eliminate demand for whales and dolphins from the wild.” I think a fair reading of the pledge is that it could reduce demand for wild captures (and how great that reduction is will depend on how Virgin interprets the actions of marine parks according to the Pledge), but it will certainly not eliminate demand.

For all these reasons, whale and dolphin groups have issued a statement in response to the Virgin Pledge, correctly noting its limitations. Smartly, they call on Virgin to continue refining its pledge to reflect evolving public opinion on the issue of marine mammal captivity:

Although the pledge is a step in the right direction, we expected more from the Virgin stakeholder process, and we are calling on Virgin to return to the table to discuss  key future actions including a commitment to (1) work with suppliers to end shows and captive breeding programs within a specified timeframe , (2) prohibit breeding or display as part of rescue or rehabilitation programs, and (3) help develop sanctuaries or other alternative display environments that ultimately improve the quality of life for captives that may never be returned to the wild.

This is exactly the right response, and since this controversy over captivity will not go away simply because Virgin has issued its first take on the pledge, I think that the dialogue between Virgin and all stakeholders will continue to evolve over the coming years. Of course, that does not do much good for the dolphins and whales currently in captivity. But I think the Virgin Pledge reflects an important acknowledgement that there are ethical issues with regard to the current captivity model, and that changing public opinion means that the captive industry is not always a good industry to be doing business with (as Southwest and others have also concluded).  And as public opinion and awareness of the ethical issues raised by marine mammal captivity continue to build, businesses like Virgin will continue to challenge the captive industry to evolve and change for the better.

[Personal nit-pick on the Virgin Pledge: Sir Richard, in his introduction of the Virgin Pledge, says that the announcement he made in February, which set all this in motion, was that Virgin businesses would only do business with suppliers who pledge not to take “sea mammals” from the wild. Yet the pledge only applies to cetacea (dolphins and whales). So as far as Virgin is concerned it is still a free-for-all when it comes to capturing wild sea lions, walruses, and other pinnipeds for the shows. Somehow they got dropped from the pledge, and since that is the case Virgin should stop referring to the “Virgin Pledge On Sea Mammals.”  It should correctly be called be the “Virgin Pledge On Some Sea Mammals (But Not All Of Them Because People Care More About Dolphins And Whales)”].

Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing

“Dude, it’s over there.”

Here’s another datapoint in humanity’s endlessly evolving understanding of animal intelligence, otherwise known as “Holy crap, they are smarter than we thought!”:

We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it really is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object, and indicate which object it is.

As sophisticated as pointing may be, however, babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday. “If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews.

When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet now say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving just 11 elephants, is hardly the last word on the subject. But it raises a provocative possibility that elephants have a deep social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.

Can’t say I am shocked (though I do wonder how they prevented the smell of the food being a factor). Anyhow, Byrne is interested in testing the pointing recognition of dolphins and whales. I can save him some time and money but letting him know that dolphin researchers like Lou Herman, among others, have pretty successful demonstrated that dolphins understand pointing. And pointing certainly gets used at SeaWorld and in other marine parks every day.

Moment Of Zen (2): Whale Eye

Photographer Bryant Austin is out with a beautiful new book, “Beautiful Whale.”

From the publisher:

Photographer and conservationist Bryant Austin’s breathtaking photographic projectBeautiful Whale is the first of its kind: It chronicles his fearless attempts to reach out to whales as fellow sentient beings. Featuring Austin’s intimate images—some as detailed as a single haunting eye—that result from encounters based on mutual trust, Beautiful Whalecaptures the grace and intelligence of these magnificent creatures. Austin spent days at a time submerged, motionless, in the waters of remote spawning grounds waiting for humpback, sperm, and minke whales to seek him out. As oceanographer Sylvia A. Earle says in her foreword to the book, “As an ambassador from the ocean—and to the ocean—Bryant Austin is not only a source of inspiration. He is cause for hope.”

More on Austin and his work, here and here.

Whale vs. Volvo 70

This video brings together two things I care about–whales and the Volvo Ocean Race–and luckily neither party was injured. The video shows the New Zealand team, CAMPER, dodging a whale at more than 20 knots.

From the Volvo Ocean Race website:

White water was breaking over the red boat’s bow as the team hurtled at speeds in excess of 20 knots when Bermúdez’s keen eye caught a grey glimpse of the mammal off the bow.

Without a second thought Bermúdez swung the wheel and dodged the whale, avoiding a collision that could have proved costly for the boat and crew.

“With reflexes like a cat he narrowly missed what could have been the equivalent of a runaway freight train colliding with a truck,” Media Crew Member Hamish Hooper said.

“We were doing just over 20 knots and all of a sudden the boat lurched to starboard, just staying in control.

“Nico (skipper Chris Nicholson) popped his head up to see Chuny looking as if he has just seen his life flash before his eyes. I think he had. It would have been seriously bad for both the whale and us.”

As sailboat technology has delivered lighter, more powerful boats that can travel across the seas at ridiculous speeds, collision with anything is increasingly a problem. And collision with a whale at those speeds is a life-threatening problem–both for the crew (which would experience the equivalent of hitting a soft wall at almost 30 miles per hour, which can easily sink a boat, cause head injuries, or pitch crew overboard) and the whale (which would experience a potentially fatal blow from either a sharp bow or keel).

Many race boats have hit whales (here and here, for example), leaving clouds of blood in the water, and usually all the focus is on whether the boat and crew is okay. No one ever really knows (or cares that much) what happens to the whale, but it is reasonable to assume sailboat racing has killed a number of whales (and so far the score is entirely in favor of the humans–no sailor that I now of has died as a result of collision with a whale, though rescues have been required when boats were destroyed).

Side note: of course, every once in a while the whales get their own licks in:

At some level sailboat racing is a pretty frivolous human endeavor, so the death of a whale is pretty hard to justify. Sadly, there does not yet seem to be any real solution to the problem of high-speed sailboats colliding with whales. So add the occasional dead whale (or shark, or sunfish, or….) to the list of things that modern sailboat racing involves.

Must-Read Book Club: “The Sounding Of The Whale”

For anyone interested in whales and dolphins, this book looks fascinating: “The Sounding Of The Whale: Science And Cetaceans In The Twentieth Century.” It’s a masterwork by D. Graham Burnett, a professor of history of science at Princeton that explores the extensive–and sometimes brutal–history of humanity’s interaction with, and understanding of, cetaceans.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.

In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. When Burnett opens his story, ignorance reigns: even Nature was misclassifying whales at the turn of the century, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed, or widely flouted, by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day. The book closes with a look at the remarkable shift in public attitudes toward whales that began in the 1960s, as environmental concerns and new discoveries about whale behavior combined to make whales an object of sentimental concern and public adulation.

A sweeping history, grounded in nearly a decade of research, The Sounding of the Whale tells a remarkable story of how science, politics, and simple human wonder intertwined to transform the way we see these behemoths from below.

This finback whale, found dead in the Baltic in 2006, was pulled from the sea by Greenpeace and dumped in front of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin as an anti-whaling protest. (Credit: Danny Gohlke/Agence France-Press — Getty Images)

And here is a passage from the New York Times review, which featured the above image, that in particular caught my attention:

From the likes of Hjort and Harmer and others, Burnett leads us to the superhumanly curious American A. Remington Kellogg, “the Prince of Whales.” Kellogg is perhaps the book’s most intellectually intriguing character, acting as a bridge between the gentleman scientists of the 19th century who had the luxury to leisurely catalog the world’s natural abundance and the conservation-minded biologists of the 20th who could see their research subjects vanishing before their very eyes. For Kellogg, the process of awakening to cetacean exceptionality was a grisly one. He was among the first to commission “vivisections” on porpoises even though, in his own words, “a live porpoise can be handled about as readily as a satchel of dynamite.” This did not deter the intrepid scientists who “fell to the unlovely task of restraining the furiously squealing animal in order first to expose the skull and then to saw into it to expose the brain.” When these operations were performed, Kellogg was witness to “a strangely large brain, one with elaborate patterns of convolution such as were generally thought to be more or less unique to human beings.”

Kellogg’s cruel-sounding investigations into cetacean morphology were paired with truly kind and selfless lobbying on whales’ behalf. In tracking Kellogg’s journey from naturalist to activist, Burnett makes good on his promise to show that “a history of whale science can shed considerable light on the changing understanding of nature in the 20th century.” Not only did Kellogg operate in a policy sphere, lobbying to create the Council for the Conservation of Whales, he also assiduously wooed the popular zeitgeist, most notably by working to produce the National Geographic article that would start to shift the general public’s perceptions of what had been largely maligned creatures. For any writer who has ever dealt with that hallowed magazine’s combination of nitpicking and bluster, the record of Kellogg’s editorial squabbles with National Geographic is worth the price of admission. “Left and right, he fought off editors’ desires to sensationalize cetacean ‘monstrosity,’ ” and at one point wrote to a colleague, “ ‘The publisher has the idea that all the pictures should be exciting, such as a whale running its head though a steamer and then winking its eye at the astonished crew.’ ” When the editors wanted to call the piece “Whales: Lions of the Sea,” Kellogg responded: “ ‘Whales are very distantly, if at all, related to the cat tribe. . . . Except when mortally wounded,’ they ‘are inoffensive and noted for their timidity.’ ”

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