News in the world of whales over the last two weeks (or close to it).
Here’s a blowout edition of “This Week in Whales.” I’m sorry for the delay. But, as you’ll see from the first entry, I was a little bit busy filing a case against the National Marine Fisheries Service for its illegal authorization of Navy training activities in the Pacific Northwest.
- On January 26, NRDC sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. As I stated in our press release, “The Navy’s Northwest Training Range is the size of the State of California, yet not one square inch is off-limits to the most harmful aspects of naval testing and training activities. We are asking for common-sense measures to protect the critical wildlife that lives within the training range from exposure to life-threatening effects of sonar. Biologically rich areas like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary should be protected.” We’re joined in the suit by InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, and People for Puget Sound, all represented by Earthjustice. You can read my prior blog on the suit, NRDC Seeks to Protect Whales in the Pacific Northwest from Sonar, which provides more details about our case and also has a cool slideshow.
- Unfortunately, the dolphin stranding disaster in Cape Cod continues. Since January 12, 129 common dolphins have stranded, resulting in 92 deaths. While dolphin strandings are common this time of year, never in these numbers, making this the largest single-species event of its kind on record in the northeastern United States. The unusual numbers are leaving scientists and other specialists puzzled. A research team has conducted nine complete necropsies and blood and microbial swab samples have been taken from some of the dolphins that were found alive. While results of these studies have not been finalized, no pattern of disease or trauma has been found pointing to a cause. According to Katie Moore, Manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Program, “We’re not ruling anything out at this point. But we also don’t have any hard evidence to suggest once cause over another. So although it pains me to say these three words, when asked why this is happening, for right now, ‘I don’t know’ is the only answer I can give.” Some have noted that the weather this season in the Cape has been unusually warm, which may have caused changes in the distribution of prey species, leading more dolphins into stranding-prone situations. But Katie Moore says that while climate and other factors such as acoustic disorientation cannot be ruled out, “we don’t have a single answer.”
- Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, there was a mass stranding of pilot whales in New Zealand. 99 whales stranded and restranded at New Zealand’s Golden Bay over a four day period. Rescuers worked to save the whales throughout this period, with several refloating attempts. Unfortunately, officials eventually had to euthanize the whales that could not be saved.
- For some good news, let’s move slightly west to Australia, where whale pingers on Gold Coast shark nets are keeping humpbacks from becoming entangled. The acoustic alarms were fitted in 2010 to warn whales about the presence of shark nets – put in place to protect swimmers from sharks. Of course, the unfortunate side effect is that humpback whales were becoming entangled in the nets. Apparently the pingers are working; government officials report that whale entanglements have dropped from six in 2009 to one last year.
- You may have heard about the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would move costly and polluting fuel from Canada’s tar sands mines (themselves an environmental disaster) to the Gulf Coast. NRDC has vigorously opposed the construction of the Keystone Pipeline – it undermines our Nation’s efforts to shift to a clean energy economy and presents serious environmental and health risks. NRDC also opposes Canada’s plans for a tar sands pipeline from Central Canada to the pristine coast of British Columbia. This pipeline, “Northern Gateway,” would keep us hooked on dangerous fossil fuels and present an unacceptable risk to some of the most rugged terrain on the continent. This fall, a documentary produced by Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Patagonia will tell the tale of four surfers who set out to find big waves in the choppy waters off the Great Bear Rainforest – an area threatened by the proposed pipeline. Here’s a trailer of the documentary:
- There’s a debate going on right now over a plan to dart tag Southern resident killer whales off Puget Sound. The population is critically endangered, estimated at about 88 individuals. While we know where they spend the summer months (Puget Sound) we don’t know where they go for the winter. Having this vital piece of information could help scientists device a better plan for their recovery. So, how do you find out where they go? You can shoot them with dart tags, producing an injury about the size of a golf ball that may get infected, or you can use more passive measures to track the whales such as listening to their distinctive sounds. The risk associated with dart tags could be justified if the National Marine Fisheries Service (who has to approve such plans) committed itself to using the information to designate additional critical habitat that could save the whales, but it hasn’t and it’s unlikely they will. The agency already has survey results showing the whales in shallow waters of the West Coast, as far south as Monterey, California, but has refused to use this information to protect whales from known threats, like military sonar. You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t use it, what’s the point? As The Whale Museum noted in a letter to the agency, “[W]e cannot see a compelling need to use an invasive technique to show similar data trends when the existing data observations were not used, or were not adequate, to take conservation measures that would have prevented potential impact to whales in areas and times of the year when they have been demonstrated to use the area.” Yes, what they said.
- Dolphins and whales have been recorded playing together. The humpback whales lift bottlenose dolphins out of the water, which then slide down the whales back into the ocean. Neither species showed signs of aggression or distress, indicating that the interaction was a playful social activity.
- Did you know that fishing communities in southern Vietnam worship whales and hold huge burial ceremonies for washed up whales. These Vietnamese fishing communities also host a Whale Festival every year.
- Captive dolphins in France have been repeating humpback whale songs that are on their performance soundtrack. The dolphins were breed in captivity, so their only exposure to the whale songs were on the soundtrack that plays during their show. While dolphins have been known to repeat back sounds immediately upon hearing them, scientists say this is the first time that dolphins have been recorded repeating sounds after a significant delay. The speculation as to why they are repeating the whale songs raise intriguing questions. Are the dolphins expressing something that’s occurring in a dream? Are the dolphins going over their performance routine in their heads like humans do when prepping for a dance recital? I don’t know if we’ll ever know for sure, but I’m glad they do it.
- Speaking of captive dolphins, I’m guessing there’s a dolphin in China that’s dreaming of choking. Just in case you need another reason to oppose torturing dolphins for our entertainment, an operation was recently performed on a captive dolphin in China to remove a rubber ball that it accidentally swallowed during a performance. At one point, doctors issued a call for someone with arms measuring at least 1.1 meters long to reach in and grab the ball. Meng Da, a professional basketball player answered the call, but alas was not able to reach far enough into the dolphin’s stomach. The ball was finally removed in a three-hour operation, during which the dolphin was awake. That sounds awful.
- Katy Perry techno tunes did not cause the death of two dolphins found dead at a Swiss amusement park in November 2011 following an all-night rave. The real culprit was brain injuries caused by overdoses of antibiotics.
- Plastic bags are bad. They don’t decompose and they end up in the ocean. Here’s a video of a dolphin in Hawaii struggling with a plastic bag. It’s all fun and games until a dolphin can’t breathe.
- Disappearing Arctic sea ice is enticing orcas to head North. Beluga whales, narwhal, and seals that could otherwise avoid the whales are increasingly on the menu. According to researchers, the killer whales will compete with Inuit hunters for food and may replace polar bears as the North’s top predator. As if polar bears didn’t have enough problems to deal with – global warming literally melting their habitat and unsustainable hunting in Canada.