This Week in Whales: Iceland Wraps Up Whaling Season; Whales Tangled in Nets; Gathering Whale Data from Blow Holes...

Entangled sperm whale. Photo Credit Alberto Romeo/Marine Photobank

News in the world of whales this week (or close to it):

  • On Tuesday, a humpback whale entangled in fishing line was found dead near New York. In Australia, a whale calf was found entangled in a shark net—the fifth so far this year—and luckily was freed after a long and arduous rescue mission. The Humane Society in Australia is calling for the removal of shark nets from Queensland and New South Wales. The nets consistently trap marine mammals, and are ineffective at preventing human beachgoer-shark interaction (their intended purpose).  Nets and marine mammals don’t mix.  Approximately 300,000 whales and dolphins die or are seriously injured each year as a result of interactions with fishing gear (setting aside “shark prevention” nets).  Steps must be taken to reduce this unnecessary, wasteful, and—in many cases—population threatening harm.  I’ve got some ideas on that front.  Stay tuned…
  • A team of U.S. Navy bottlenose dolphins and their handlers are collaborating with the Croatian armed forces to detect underwater mines in Zaton Bay, where artillery and shells that were fired during the two world wars and then the Yugoslav wars of independence in the '90s still linger. These highly trained dolphins are more effective than any technology at detecting unexploded bombs, due to their intelligence and biological sonar. They were flown from San Diego to Croatia for this mission (bet that flight was comfy) and are kept captive in pens until they are let out to sniff out the mines...or until they get blown up, although I haven’t found any reports of that actually happening.
  • Scientists have recently developed methods whereby they can analyze a whale's hormones, microorganisms, DNA, and byproducts of its metabolism--all from its breath, or "blow." Captive whales and dolphins' trainers and veterinarians have long smelled their breath to help diagnose any health problems—rotten-egg breath points to digestive problems and sweet-smelling breath signals bacterial pneumonia—but recent advances in chemical sensing, computing, and human breath analysis has enabled scientists to glean much more precise information from whale breath. Hopefully, these methods can replace some of the less humane and obtrusive data-collection practices currently necessary for studying captive and wild cetaceans, such as blood sampling.
  • Earlier this summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the Georgia Aquarium its request for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia. The Georgia Aquarium is appealing this decision. The import of these wild belugas raised serious conservation concerns, as my colleague blogged. The courts should find that NMFS made the right decision.
  • Sea World is planning to install "flow channels" in its killer whale pools--artificial currents with speeds up to 30 mph that will allegedly provide the whales with a "sensation of endless swimming" (much like a treadmill). Officials say it will improve the whales' health, fitness and quality of life. Seems to me that a prison with a gym is still a prison.
  • Further research on the alarming unusual mortality event this summer when hundreds of dolphins washed up dead up and down the Atlantic seaboard explores the role humans have played in contributing to the die-off.

Meanwhile, this week in Wales…

Two south Wales councils have approved bids to perform four gas drilling tests over the objection of villagers who fear future extraction by fracking and other negative impacts associated with searching for and producing gas.


Photo Credit: A diver tries to disentangle a sperm whale. Alberto Romero/Marine Photobank