Laurie Murison’s top ten quirky whale facts!

1. Sperm whales wear lipgloss! You know that squid are luminescent and glow in the dark, right? And you know that sperm whales eat squid? Well, sperm whales have been seen with glowing lips as if they are wearing squid-lipgloss! What is not yet known is whether this is an entirely unintentional consequence of their diet or whether the whales are harnessing their fashionable new look for a more serious purpose. “It is possible that they use their luminescent lips to attract and catch more squid. If a sperm whale hangs upside down in the water, the squid would see the light shining upwards and may swim down to investigate, thinking it is food or a mate.” And then of course the squid will become just one more mouthful for the pouting sperm whale.

2. Blubber (which lies underneath a whale’s skin) has more weird and wonderful properties than you might at first give it credit for. You can probably guess that it keeps a whale warm, helps with streamlining by ironing out any bumps, and can be used by the whale as food if absolutely necessary. But, you may not have known about its amazing elastic band properties. Blubber is stretchy and, just like an elastic band, if you stretch it out and then let it go, it will ping back into shape again. “When a whale swims, its tail propels it forwards by moving up and down. As the tail goes up, the blubber on the underside of the tail stretches, so as soon as the whale stops moving its tail up, the blubber pings back, pulling the tail back down with it. Blubber requires less oxygen than muscles, so having blubber to do half the work conserves oxygen.” Very useful for an animal that spends long periods of time underwater holding its breath!

3. Ever wondered why some whales majestically show off their tail flukes when they dive and some don’t? Well it’s because some whales are sinkers and some are floaters! “Have you ever noticed how some people tend to naturally float in a swimming pool and some people sink? With whales, certain species are naturally buoyant and others are not. Finback and minke whales, for example, are sinkers, so they do not need to throw their tail in the air before they dive. Humpbacks on the other hand are floaters, so they need all the help they can get. They have to make a real effort to dive down deep, so they throw their tail up to give themselves maximum thrust.” So if you ever go whale watching and want to see a whale’s flukes, make sure you choose a location where you can see a floater and not a sinker.

4. Different whale species sometimes hang out and play together. Last week in the Bay of Fundy, finback whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins were doing just that. In one small area there were about three groups of fin whales with three groups of dolphins escorting them. The fin whales who usually dive for four minutes or more were only diving for about two minutes; matching the dive time of the dolphins. As they all came to the surface, the dolphins bow rode in front of the whales and the whales emitted loud trumpeting calls. “This was their equivalent of screaming in high-pitched excitement, they are not normally vocal, at least in the spectrum that us humans can hear them.” More and more whales appeared, manoeuvring themselves to join the party, and the dolphins completely ignored our boat as they were having so much fun with the whales.

5. Whales can mistake plastic for food and eat it, which may harm or even kill them. For example, a sperm whale was found dead after ingesting a weather balloon. Imagine swallowing a few plastic bags yourself… they may manage to make it through your body and come out the other end, or they may stay in your stomach, plugging it up so that nothing else can get in. “Helium balloons from Massachusetts, in the middle of the North American continent, have been tracked and found far out in middle of the ocean. Every simple little action can have huge consequences!”

6. There is more than one way to get a mouthful of plankton. Finback, minke and humpback whales eat plankton… So do right whales. But they go about it in a different way. The fin, minke and humpback whales are gulpers, or lunge feeders. “They take one big gulp of water and food, shut their mouth and then expel the water out through the baleen while retaining the food inside.” (These whales have baleen instead of teeth and they use it like a sieve; it allows water through, but not food.) Right whales on the other hand are skim feeders. “They swim slowly along, with their mouth open. Water and food enters through the front of the mouth where there is no baleen, then the water escapes through the baleen at the sides of the mouth, while the food remains inside.” In this way, skim feeders are able to feed continuously but can only eat smaller prey, as anything large like a fish would have the strength to swim right back out the front of their mouths. Lunge feeders on the other hand can on occasion go after larger prey such as herring. “Right whales can skim feed at the surface and underwater, just as lunge feeders can gulp at the surface or underwater. When eating underwater, lunge feeders only dive for 4-12 minutes gulping down big mouthfuls of food, whereas skim feeders stay underwater for up to 30 minutes skimming slowly and continuously along.”

7. A whale’s skin is quite peculiar. It is very thick (in right whales it is a centimetre thick!), so thick that if it were to lie horizontally like our skin does, the whale would not be able to feel touch or exchange food and waste products because its blood vessels and nerve endings would not be able to penetrate it. Instead, a whale’s skin lies vertically, like microscopic fingers hanging down. An added bonus to this structure is that it aids streamlining. “Water is rather choosy, it likes to travel in waves, and does not like to travel in a flat motion. The texture of the whale’s skin encourages the water to flow over it in a wavy motion.”

8. Toothed whales, such as dolphins and porpoises, have to learn from a young age to eat their fish the correct way. “Everything on a fish is designed for streamlining them in the water: try stroking a fish, you’ll notice that their scales, gills and fins only stick out if you stroke them backwards.” Now imagine trying to swallow a fish backwards… urgghh, yes, you might end up with a fish stuck in your throat and, if a porpoise does not learn the correct way to eat fish quickly, it may end of up with a throat full of choking-fish too!

9. Whales of today live in urbanised, industrial cities… Or at least, the ocean equivalent of urbanised, industrial cities. Their world is subject to noise pollution, chemical pollution, constant traffic, sonar and all sorts of crazy human antics. Even planes high up in the sky add to the noise level which they have to contend with. “When air traffic around the world was stopped on September 11th 2001, equipment measuring noise level in our oceans showed that they had suddenly gone very quiet indeed.” Unfortunately for the whales, they cannot call the anti-social behaviour police and complain about our actions. Instead, right whales are shouting louder than they did forty years ago to make sure they are heard. Research is in its preliminary stages to determine whether whales are currently suffering from stress, (which can be detected by measuring hormone levels). However, “Research already carried out on land has proven that animals living in urban environments are more highly stressed than their cousins living in natural environments”, so it would be reasonable to assume that whales of today may also be living with a higher degree of stress. Probably not very helpful for their sex drives which, considering they are still trying to recover from our past misdemeanours towards them, is a problem they could really do without.

10. Whales cheat! If you thought migration was a simple clear cut process, with whales moving from feeding area ‘A’ to calving area ‘B’ back to feeding area ‘A’ with everyone obeying the rules… then think again! “Whales in the northern Atlantic do not follow the rules. Whether they are a finback, humpback or right whale, they can do unexpected things.” A right whale, for example, might decide to pop over to Norway or the Azores for a few months, even though they have never been there before, and any males or females not involved in breeding and calving one year, may decide to stay in a feeding area such as the Bay of Fundy, or go on an excursion. “Right whales go walkabout sometimes, they might appear at Cape Cod or elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, traveling their own little circuit.” You can never be completely sure where a whale may or may not pop up next, which of course makes the conservation of them and their critical habitats even more tricky.

From my experiences of Laurie I would say you can never quite be sure where she will pop up next either… One moment it may be on a whale watching boat, the next at a teenagers holiday camp, then at a lighthouse, and then maybe in the bathroom with a power tool in her hand… Laurie’s life is a constant, tremendously impressive, juggling act. And it is her supreme powers of multi-tasking which will form the subject of my next post about her…

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