Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Humpback whales

Let's have a look at (and a listen to) humpback whales, so named because of the curving of their backs when diving. Their numbers have increased so much since their near-extinction in the 1960s that the U.S. Government is considering taking them off the endangered species list. There are an estimated 16,000-18,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific and some 60,000 worldwide, although the numbers seem to vary widely among different sources.

First, the perennial problem of removing their remains when they wash up on shore, since the adult whales can weigh 40 tons and measure 50 feet long. In Tiverton, Rhode Island, scientists performed a necropsy and then buried a whale on state land. In Windy Harbour, Western Australia, wildlife officials had to euthanize a juvenile whale, then bury it nearby. In London, England, the Zoological Society performed a postmortem examination on a juvenile, which was presumably buried. In Guinea, Virginia, workers with the Marine Stranding Program took fin sections and tissue samples prior to performing a necropsy and possibly depositing the carcass in a landfill.

Next, some of the tricks humpback whales play, including "bubble-netting" to scare their prey into submission and swallowing in one gulp the bait-balls of herring that seabirds painstakingly corral. The competition the males must engage in to find a mate. And the sight and sounds of an albino humpback who has lived off the Queensland coast for 10 years now.

And finally, some personal encounters. Cameraman Marco Queral, who has swum with and photographed the whales and other marine life in the South Pacific for17 years. Kayakers in Hawaii - to which an estimated 2/3 of the North Pacific humpback population migrate every year - having close encounters of their own. And a 50-footer showing gratitude to the men who untangled her from crab lines 18 miles off the San Francisco coast:
"It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it," James Moskito, one of the rescue divers, said....Moskito and three other divers spent about an hour cutting the ropes with a special curved knife. The whale floated passively in the water the whole time, he said, giving off a strange kind of vibration." When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me," Moskito said. "It was an epic moment of my life." When the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles, according to the rescuers. Moskito said it swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one."It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that's happy to see you,'' Moskito said. "I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience."

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