News continues to worsen for marine mammals on the west coast. In addition to terrible domoic acid poisoning for seals and sea lions, whales are passing away at a record rate.
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Thirty-one dead gray whales have been spotted along the entire West Coast since January — the most for this time of year since 2000. Dozens more have shown visible signs of malnourishment, and sightings of mother-calf pairs are down significantly.
Frances Gulland, a research associate at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, estimates that gray whale deaths could hit 60 or 70 by the end of the season.
“If this continues at this pace through May, we would be alarmed,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
Marine scientist Steven Swartz said 23% of the whales without calves his team has observed in Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon this year were skinny. That’s more than three times higher than usual.
David Shaerf, a professor of English and cinema studies at Michigan's Oakland University, is fanatical about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. He's so fanatical that he made a documentary about Moby Dick fanaticism. The film is titled "Call Us Ishmael" and in it, Shaerf joins the devotees who gather annually in New Bedford, Massachusetts to read Moby-Dick aloud, without stopping. He interviews the likes of Frank Stella who spent 15 years making a piece of art for each of the book's chapters. He talks with the likes of Laurie Anderson who developed an entire live performance and tour titled "Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick" and Matt Kish, the librarian/illustrator who drew "Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page." Now, Shaerf is seeking help via Kickstarter to get Call Me Ishmael ready for release by clearing the music, legal fees, and insurance before he can hand it off to the film's distributor.
It sounds like a whale of a project and I look forward to seeing the film!
"Support "Call Us Ishmael" via Kickstarter!" (Thanks Ora Pescovitz!)
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Trump's about to make a bunch of whales, turtles, and dolphins go deaf.
The Trump administration is about to take a preliminary step toward oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, by approving requests from energy companies to conduct “deafening seismic tests that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Read the rest
is a citizen science project (and app) enabling you to listen to livestreams of audio from underwater microphones off Washington’s San Juan Island. Read the rest
Most military underwater surveillance systems filter out whale calls along with other ambient ocean noise. This inspired researchers from China's Tianjin University to create a form of "bio-inspired steganography" in which recordings of whale songs can be edited to contain secret messages and then electronically transmitted underwater. From Newsweek:
In research published in IEEE Communication Magazine, the team said there are two ways to hide signals in whale pulses—changing the signal to include encrypted information or making the signal weaker.
The former is problematic because it would stand out from other naturally occurring signals, Jiang told SCMP. However, the second method holds promise. Researchers could build a coding system around the whale sounds. They could then edit whale sounds so they are indistinguishable from other whale calls. When they are received by the coding system, they can be deciphered. The main drawback for this approach is that it would be difficult to send a message over a long distance.
"Bio-Inspired Steganography for Secure Underwater Acoustic Communications" (IEEE Communications)
Image: "A mother sperm whale and her calf off the coast of Mauritius" by Gabriel Barathieu Read the rest
Ross Edgley is swimming all the way around Britain, which is being followed both above and below the ocean's surface. A large minke whale visited him the other day. Read the rest
According to the excellent wunderkammer of Twitter accounts, We Like To Learn, "Throughout history, sailors have mistaken Beluga Wales for mermaids because of their human-like knees."
(As our helpful commenters point out, those aren't literally "knees" in the image but rather love handles that help the whales steer as they swim. More here.)
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Baby whales aren't very good at making various calls, but a new study shows that even adults continue to improve their calling techniques. Read the rest
Researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile trained an orca named Wikie to mimic words like "hello," "bye-bye," and other human speech sounds. John Lilly, I wish you were around to be part of this conversation. From the New York Times:
“We wanted to study vocal imitation because it’s a hallmark of human spoken language, which is in turn important for human cultural evolution,” said José Zamorano-Abramson, who led the study as a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. “We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes...."
The learning of culture, including vocal traditions, “is a key capability in the intertwining lives of killer whales,” he said, “and one that is critically harmed in captivity,” where animals are isolated and unable to develop the depth of emotions they would in the wild...
"Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)" (Royal Society)
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It's from 2012, but National Geographic's article about a Beluga whale imitating human speech is not to be missed. Embedded above is a recording of Noc, who pretty much sounds like he's taking the mickey out of us.
Researchers first noticed something peculiar back in 1984, when they heard people talking around NOC's enclosure when no one else was nearby.
"You could hear there was a conversation, but you couldn't make out what they were saying," said study co-author Sam Ridgway of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego.
The source of the chattering was later confirmed when a human diver thought someone had told him to get out of the whale's tank—it turned out to be NOC, repeating a sound like the word "out."
Doo doo do doooo (*muttering*) stupid humans DO DAAA DOD DOOOO! Read the rest
A new study in the International Journal of Astrobiology posits that beached whales may sometimes be influenced by solar storms. Read the rest
A pod of orcas, aka the a-holes of the ocean, got recorded by a drone as they harassed a blue whale that was minding its own business. Read the rest
True's beaked whales spend much of their time deep underwater, so much of what we know about the mysterious species comes from stranded corpses. That's why a live sighting of a pod including underwater footage is so remarkable. Read the rest
What happens when a whale dies? It sinks to the ocean floor, creating a whale fall, which becomes a fantastical garden of biodiversity. EVNautilus stumbled on a naturally-occurring whale fall during a live feed, an exceedingly rare find. Read the rest
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US Navy researched whether they could use synthesized whale sounds for submarines to have encoded conversations across long distances underwater. Called Project COMBO, it was a fascinating attempt at biomimicry. The project's culminating experiment even attracted a pod of whales. Alas, Project COMBO ultimately failed, but it makes for a great story. From Cara Giaimo's article in Atlas Obscura:
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Positioning themselves off of Catalina Island, 150 feet underwater, they blasted their squeaky, warbly codes through a transmitter. The receiver, placed at varying distances away, plucked the messages out of the noise flawlessly. Another test, in the fall, went deeper down and extended the range. In June of 1974, they sent out a real submarine, the USS Dolphin, which successfully transmitted sounds to a receiving ship—and, in a true vote of confidence, attracted a pod of pilot whales.
After these testing successes, researchers were left with a lot of work to do. Although they had the pilot whale on lock, they wanted to expand their repertoire by inventing “techniques and equipment to synthesize large whale sounds and small whale screams.” They still had to create scalable versions of their tools, including the call generator and the spectrograph-recognizer. Looking ahead, more problems loomed: the researchers figured this was a good enough idea that the Soviets would steal it, at which point American submariners would need to add another skill to their arsenal. “Fleet sonarmen must become more familiar with bioacoustic signals,” they wrote—inspiring thoughts of submarine soldiers, facing long days underwater, taking up sonic seal- and whale-watching.
We've posted about this in the past, but it was brought to my attention that the legendary exploding whale news report was rebroadcast not long ago, meaning that the best quality possible (given the age of the 8mm film) is now available for your whale-exploding pleasure.
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The Navy have been blasting the sea with louder than rock concert sounds, hunting for Red October. Apparently the U.S. Navy hasn't done enough to ensure its sonar technology isn't hurting whales tho. Regardless this decision being overturned, the Navy had already planned to phase out much of the harmful sound.
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“The Court of Appeals understood that the Navy can do more to reduce the risk of its powerful long-range sonar, especially in the vast reaches of the ocean where too little is known,” Michael Jasny of the National Resource Defense Council, one of several organizations behind suit, said in a statement. “Ignorance is no excuse for inaction where commonsense safeguards recommended by the government’s own scientists can prevent avoidable harm.”
The court’s ruling will send both parties back to a district court for further consideration. But time may well run out on the NMFS’s decision anyway; it expires in 2017. The Navy has already agreed to limit its use of sonar in certain locations starting in 2018. Soon, the only waves in the ocean will be the natural ones made of water, not man-made ones that come from sound.