Iceland resumes whale hunting, endangered Fin Whale killed


"Kristjan Loftsson, CEO of the the company Hvalur hf." Photo: News of Iceland.

Icelandic news outlets are reporting that an Icelandic whaling company, Hvalur hf, "caught its first fin whale yesterday evening," after sailing out yesterday with two boats, both due back in port today.

Fin whales are the second-largest whale, and are classified as an Endangered species.

From News of Iceland:

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What does ambergris look like?

Ambergris is often referred to as "whale vomit", but that's not really correct. A more accurate analogy would be to say that ambergris is like the whale equivalent of a hairball. It's produced in the whale digestive tract, possibly to protect intestines from the sharp, pointy beaks of squid — you'll often find squid beaks embedded in the stuff. Most of it gets pooped out. But the big chunks of ambergris have to exit the other direction. In the human world, these lumps — which have the consistency of soft rock or thickly packed potting soil — are famous because we use them to make things like perfume. The ambergris washes up on beaches, people collect it, and sell it to make cosmetics.

Anyway, that's what usually happens. Recently, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Holland and the conservationists who dissected it found a huge quantity of ambergris in the animal's intestines.

That news made me realize that I'd never actually seen a picture of ambergris before, so I went hunting around to see what the stuff looked like. That's a photo of a lump of ambergris, above. But it's not really indicative of what ambergris looks like all the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the stuff comes in a wide variety of shapes and colors — ranging from stuff that looks like small brown pebbles to yellow-green globs covered in bubbly nodules. The diversity is worth perusing. This website, for a company that buys and sells ambergris, has several nice photos. And Google image search turned up a plethora of pics that really capture how different one lump of ambergris can be from another.

Does the Loneliest Whale really exist?

The 52 Hertz Whale is the cetacean equivalent of a pop-culture phenomenon — a strange creature, known only through recording of whale songs picked up in the Pacific Ocean, who seems to not be a part of any identifiable whale group. Also known as The Loneliest Whale in the World it is a source of pity and fascination among the general public. At PLOS Blogs, Hannah Cheng has a three-part feature on what we do and don't know about the Loneliest Whale. Why, despite 20 years of tracking this thing in sound recordings, do we not have any direct observation of the Loneliest Whale? She's got the answers.

Dog finds whale vomit

Ambergris in Morecambe, England. [BBC]

A man from Morecambe believes his dog has found a rare piece of whale vomit while walking on the beach. ... Mr Wilman said: "When I picked it up and smelled it I put it back down again and I thought 'urgh'.

The Christmas Whale: A depressing reminder of the importance of love

While you were eating Thanksgiving turkey, surrounded by loving family and friends, one whale was all alone, swimming through the Pacific Ocean with no one to talk to and no one to care.

Since 1989, researchers have been tracking this specific whale based on its distinct vocalizations. Baleen whales — a category of cetaceans without teeth, separate from their toothy dolphin/beluga/orca relations — are famous for producing eerie, underwater songs and scientists think those sounds are probably an extremely important aspect of participation in whale society. Baleen whales lack keen eyesight and sense of smell underwater, so sounds are probably how they recognize one another, help each other navigate, and even find mates. But these vocalizations happen in very specific frequency range — between 10 and 31 hertz, depending on the species. The Christmas Whale, on the other hand, speaks at 52 hertz. Imagine brining a piccolo to a tuba party. That is analogous to the awkward position that the 52-hertz whale is in.

Scientists usually pick up the call of the 52-hertz whale sometime between August and December, as it makes its way through a Cold War-era network of underwater microphones in the North Pacific. Although this whale has apparently survived for many years and seems to have grown and matured during that time (based on its voice deepening slightly), it also appears to exist outside of whale social systems. It travels alone. Nobody answers its high-pitched pleas for love. Every so often, non-scientist humans remember that it exists and write sad stories about it. But nobody is sure why it sings out of range of its fellow whales.

It strikes me as the kind of horribly sad thing that should get made into a maudlin children's picture book. The central message: Appreciate the love you have and give love in return. This holiday season, remember the plight of the loneliest whale. Give thanks for the presence of the people who love you. Show affection to others.

Listen to NOAA recordings of the 52-hertz whale (these have been sped up 10x)

The Loneliest Mix is a fan-site where you can download 52-hertz whale audio and video clips.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's page on the 52-hertz whale

Research paper explaining how scientists capture whale sounds in the north Pacific.

Picture taken the day after Thanksgiving at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I don't think they meant to tie into the legend of The Christmas Whale. But hey, it works.

I am grateful for friends like Grady, who alert me to stories like this.

South Korea may resume whaling, like Japan, "for scientific purposes"

South Korea may soon again allow whale hunting in the waters off its shores for what the government claims are "scientific purposes." The news has sparked criticism from environmental organizations and nations around the Pacific Rim. The country's delegation to the International Whaling Commission said this week that Seoul is reviewing a proposal to hunt minke whales migrating off the Korean Peninsula.

Navy: sonar and explosion tests may be harming dolphins, whales

In an environmental impact statement covering future plans for U.S. Navy training and testing, an acknowledgement that the use of sonar and explosives "could potentially hurt more dolphins and whales in Hawaii and California waters than previously thought." (AP)

877 dolphins wash up dead in Peru. Why?

Dolphin carcasses are displayed by conservationists and environmental police officers at San Jose beach, 40kms north of Chiclayo, Peru, on April 6, 2012. The cause of death of over 800 dolphins in the last four months on the shores of Piura and Lambayeque are still being researched, Gabriel Quijandria, Deputy Environment Minister said on April 20, 2012. More about the ongoing investigation into the possible cause of these mass die-offs: CBS News, MSNBC, AFP, DPA, CNN, (REUTERS/Heinze Plenge)

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Saving the whales? Now there's an app for that, too.

An interesting new iOS app launched today called Whale Alert. Though it's available for anyone, the iPhone/iPad app is intended primarily for use by workers in the shipping and maritime industry. It "combines science and technology to help save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales by reducing threats of collisions with large ships along the East Coast of North America."

From the launch announcement by IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare):

The app links the bridge of a ship to the latest data about right whale detections and informs users when their vessels enter right whale management areas. The app uses Global Positioning System (GPS), Automatic Identification System (AIS), the web and digital nautical chart technologies to alert mariners to NOAA’s right whale conservation measures that are active in their immediate vicinity. A key feature of Whale Alert is a display linking a system of near real-time acoustic buoys that listen for right whale calls to an iPad on a ship’s bridge showing the whale’s presence to captains transiting the shipping lanes. In a matter of seconds the ships position is updated on the iPad in relation to any endangered right whales in the shipping lanes allowing the ship to safely slow down and navigate around the whale.

North Atlantic right whales, which live along North America's east coast from Newfoundland to Florida, are one of the world’s rarest large animals and a species on the brink of extinction. So few exist -- about 450 -- that scientists have identified and named almost all of them. Collision with ships is a leading cause of right whale death.

Link to Whale Alert at the Apple App Store. More about the project at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) website.

More app screenshots below, along with a shot of the beautiful and endangered cetacean they're trying to save.

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An animal rights pop quiz

"Over the weekend, I borrowed a friend’s time machine and cold-bloodedly killed a Neandertal, a Homo erectus, an Australopithecus, a dolphin, a chimp, eight sentient robots, the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, and my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. Question: in the eyes of the law, how many murders did I just commit?" — John Rennie on the ongoing debate about intelligence, species, and the rights of non-human persons. Read his great story at Smart Planet. (Via Philip Yam) NOW WITH WORKING LINK!

An update in very important whale/dolphin friendship news

You guys! Remember yesterday, when we learned that dolphins and whales in Hawaii have twice been caught spontaneously playing together? Apparently, this gets better. Dolphins in a French aquarium seem to be "speaking" whale—making whale-sounding noises at night that mimic the actual whale noises they hear all day on the soundtrack to the aquarium dolphin show they perform in. These dolphins have never met real whales. But dolphins are known mimics and it seems that they're capable of practicing and improving on mimicked sounds hours after the sound has gone away. (Via Mindy Weisberger)

Good news: Whale and dolphins are friends

Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".

It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.

And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."

Video Link

Via Charles Q. Choi

Whales, kayakers get a little too close

This is why whale watchers are warned to stay 100 yards away from whale feeding areas. Or, as National Geographic's Sven Lindblad put it, "Note to self: Avoid kayaking among schooling herring or sardines."

Video Link