Whales

Overview

A colorful introduction to a magnificent colossus.

Intelligent, social and graceful in their underwater world, whales attract us yet defy our attempts to understand them. From the magical dolphins and dangerous leviathans that populated ancient legends to the crowd pleasers of the 20th century aquariums, they have always sparked our curiosity.

Whales explores the fascinating natural history of whales with ...

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Overview

A colorful introduction to a magnificent colossus.

Intelligent, social and graceful in their underwater world, whales attract us yet defy our attempts to understand them. From the magical dolphins and dangerous leviathans that populated ancient legends to the crowd pleasers of the 20th century aquariums, they have always sparked our curiosity.

Whales explores the fascinating natural history of whales with captivating text and spectacular photographs. This fact-filled tribute documents the struggle and survival of these magnificent ocean giants.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781552856659
  • Publisher: Whitecap Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 4/28/2005
  • Series: Wildlife Series
  • Edition description: Revised edition
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 955,068
  • Product dimensions: 8.60 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Jones graduated with a biology degree and works for a government agency that deals with fisheries and oceans.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

The Surface Broken

Wading In

Cetacean Evolution

Echoes in the Dark

The Toothed Whales

Feast and Famine

The Baleen Whales

Epilogue

The Hand Within the Fin

Suggested Reading

Index

Photo Credits

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Preface


Introduction

The Surface Broken


The whale rolls on the boundary of air and sea, sovereign in one world but forever bound to the other. The ancients knew that whales are not fish, and they knew it by their breathing. As the whale swims, it stitches a seam of air and water with thread drawn, in part, from our own breath.

As much as their great size, it is our shared mammalian ancestry that attracts us to the whale. Perhaps all mammals are called to the sea; certainly, humans feel its pull. The difference between us and the whales is that 50 million years ago, their terrestrial ancestors answered that call. Spending more and more of their time in the water over generations, they evolved the fusiform bodies that allow them to slip through water as easily as we move through air.

Long before terrestrial evolution shaped the hands and the minds of human beings, the sea streamlined the limbs of the cetacean progenitors. Perhaps what we feel for whales and dolphins is as much envy as it is kinship. While the evolution of the hand equipped us ably for a life of technology -- a life of work -- the whales were relieved of manual tasks. They are like the cousin who quit her office job and went traveling.

With the exception of some birds1 whales and dolphins are the freest of animals. The gray whale travels the longest migration of any mammal -- 12000 kilometres (7500 miles) from the Bering Sea to the Baja peninsula. There is evidence that baleen whales can communicate with their own kind half an ocean away through low-frequency calls. When a blue whale dives, before its tail has left the surface its head is already deeper than most scuba divers will go.The world must seem a small place to beings 30 metres (100 feet) long.

It's natural enough to associate such freedom with a life of leisure. Whenever we see whales and dolphins, they seem to be playing. Whales appear to breach for the sheer joy of it and dolphins leap and roll before the bows of ships, sometimes for hours, before moving off to some random destination. As if that weren't enough to convince us of their ideal existence, many of the porpoises seem to be smiling privately about something we can only guess at. Their whole appearance suggests that they're having the time of their supremely adapted lives while we've been left waving from the dock.

But cetacean life is far from carefree. Toothed whales hunt in some of the coldest and darkest water on earth -- the polar and abyssal oceans. For baleen whales, the summer is a constant search for food. The remainder of the year is spent swimming half a world away to their breeding grounds, or sustaining their young. For dolphins, the open ocean is a truly restless place. Even in sleep, half the dolphin brain remains awake to keep its breathing hole above water.

Our view of whales has not always been as romantic as it is today. For millennia, people saw only their beached and decomposed corpses or their backs rolling by in the distance. Finding dread preferable to nescience, we imagined the worst. Medieval engravers often depicted whales with rhinoceros horns, walrus tusks, and even smoking chimney pots for blowholes. The eyes and teeth were greatly enlarged, and the baleen drawn as a beard or eyebrows. In general, they were made as fearsome-looking as possible.

There is probably no whale more famous than the title character of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. Although Captain Ahab remains one of the most imposing characters in all literature, even aided by a crazed crew he proved less than a match for a sperm whale with a grudge.

The Leviathan of the Bible, sent by God to swallow Jonah, is usually assumed to be a whale. Whales that swallow men persist in myths from cultures the world over, even in modern times. In 1891 a whaler, James Bartley, published his first-hand account of how a whale saved him -- albeit the hard way -- from drowning. According to Bartley, he fell overboard and hadn't even hit the water before a sperm whale swallowed him. Bartley's shipmates caught the whale within an hour and began butchering it. When they cut open the stomach, out spilled Bartley, his hair and skin bleached a deathly white by the whale's gastric juices.

After two weeks in a coma, Bartley made a complete recovery but stayed an albino for the rest of his days. Most authorities today dismiss the account as a hoax, arguing it would be impossible for a person to survive more than a few minutes in a whale's stomach.

Tales of sailors who owe their lives to whales are legion. There is at least one documented case of severa1 dolphins keeping a shipwrecked sailor afloat in the Gulf of Suez and warding off shark attacks until he could be rescued. Vietnamese fishermen traditionally believe that whales, dispatched by the god of the waters, may bear shipwrecked sailors and even what remains of their boats to safety. The whales, in turn, are guided by cuttlefish.

Natives of Peru and Brazil will not harm or even eat the flesh of the sacred river dolphins, which they call botos. They believe the botos will attempt to save anyone from drowning in the turbid waters of the Amazon, or failing this, bring the body to shore. In certain villages, the boto is thought to assume the form of a man who attends the annual carnival and makes love to young maidens.

Most other cetaceans have not been so fortunate in their dealings with human beings. As early as 3000 B.C., the Inuit hunted gray whales using only stone, driftwood, and the body parts of animals. They pursued the whales in open, walrus-skin boats with crews of up to eight paddlers. Using harpoons with pivoting heads, they anchored sealskin floats to the quarry with ropes also made of animal hides. The floats made the harpooned whale easier to track and would eventually drag the exhausted animal to the surface. There, the hunters killed it with a lance they fashioned by lashing a bone or obsidian head to the boat's mast.

Natives of the Aleutian Islands used a different method: Pursuing right or humpbacked whales in two-man kayaks, they stabbed the whale only once with a spear dipped in aconite, an alkaloid poison made from the ground roots of the monkshood plant. The hunters then turned about and fled as fast as they could paddle. If they succeeded in stabbing the whale in just the right spot -- a plexus of blood vessels just behind the flippers -- its body would be washed ashore within two or three days.

Whalers from Hokkaido also carried on poison whaling during the 1700s. Farther south along the Japanese coastline, nets and lances were used to kill whales, which were then towed to on-shore whaling stations. These stations had separate buildings for processing different body parts -- flukes, blubber, oil, and bone, and it was here that whaling began to change from a form of hunting to an industry.

Whaling from shore-launched, open boats had little effect on whale populations. It was not until the Dutch and English built large, competing fleets that entire species began to suffer. By 1630, some 18 000 Dutch seamen plied the fishery with over 300 ships. The British North American colonists joined the hunt in the 1700s with an innovation that further devastated Atlantic whale populations: the tryworks -- a brick oven used to render whale blubber into oil aboard ship. Before this invention, blubber peeled from the floating whale's body was stored in casks and taken ashore for processing before it spoiled. With the invention of the tryworks, ships could stay at sea for years, hunting and processing whales continuously. By the 19th century, American whalers had spread to the Pacific and eventually manned a fleet of more than 700 ships at the fishery's peak in 1876.

The whalers' prizes were oil and whalebone. Whalebone is another word for baleen, the combs of keratin that hang from the palates of several species of toothless whale. These whales use baleen to strain plankton, their principal food, from seawater. Humans also found it to be a highly useful material, flexible yet able to retain shapes imposed upon it under heat. It was made into corsets, umbrella ribs, handles, and brushes.

Whalers also took oil from the bodies of their quarry: From the bones and blubber of right whales they rendered whale oil for cooking and, much later, making margarine. More highly prized was sperm oil, which comes only from the spermaceti organ in the bulbous heads of sperm whales. This oil is inedible, but can be refined into a candle wax that burns with little smoke and a pure, white flame. Sperm whales were also the source of the finest lubricants known -- particularly the oil drained from their jaw hinges.

Today, these products seem a trivial end for such magnificent creatures, but in a world where petroleum was unknown, some of them must have been marvelous.

Whalers pursued the commercial species throughout the seven seas. The first species decimated was the right whale, so named because it was the "right" whale to catch. It swims slowly, lives close to shore, and yields large amounts of oil and baleen. By the turn of the century, right whales had almost disappeared from the Atlantic. Once the gray whales' calving grounds were discovered in the bays of the California coast, they were hunted past the point of commercial viability The bowhead whale, which lives only in Arctic waters, was also driven to near extinction by the mid-1800s for both its oil and baleen. Whalers took over 100 000 humpback whales, eventually leaving as few as 10000.

By 1860, whaling as an industry was already in trouble. All of the slow-swimming species had been hunted past the point of profitability The very large baleen whales -- blue, fin, and sei -- were too fast to be caught with ships driven by oars and sails. Nor did the bodies of these whales float, so even if you killed one, recovering its blubber before the body sank was nearly impossible. At the same time, vegetable oil and petroleum products began to replace sperm oil in lamps and candle wax.

Then, between 1863 and 1870, Norwegian Svend Foyn brought together several modern inventions that revitalized whaling. He replaced the old rowing boats with a steam-powered whale catcher. A gun mounted on the forward deck fired a heavy harpoon armed with a grenade that exploded inside the whale, and a winch powered by the ship's engines reeled in the body. For the first time, whale meat could be brought ashore quickly enough to remain edible.

Now, even the largest species could be caught and killed. To make matters worse for the whales, the 20th century seemed a conveyer belt of new and more efficient technologies to process their huge bodies. The diesel engine brought faster catcher ships. Air compressors kept afloat the bodies of species that would naturally sink -- an agonizing death for any whale that survived the exploding harpoon. Factory ships with stern slips and pressure cookers speeded butchering of the animals to the point where a 100-tonne blue whale could be flensed and rendered in under an hour. Support ships, helicopters, and sonar were all eventually brought to bear against the whales.

Modern factory fleets extended whaling into the rich feeding grounds of the Antarctic for the first time. By 1962, the southern oceans' 300 000 blue whales had been reduced to fewer than 1000. Inevitably, the whalers began to push the other great whales -- sei, fin, and minke -- toward extinction. In all, 1 400 000 were taken from Antarctic waters between 1920 and 1970.

During this time, much was learned about the whale's body. The whalers were crude anatomists, wielding scalpels the size of hockey sticks. But among them were surgeons who served aboard whaling ships and published valuable accounts on sperm whales in the mid-19th century. Some of the whale's most ardent hunters -- Captains Scammon and Beale -- were also naturalists who contributed most of what was known about right and gray whales before 1960.

Anatomy can reveal only so much about an animal's ecology and behavior, however, and relying on whalers to glean the secrets of whales was a bit like depending on the local butcher to elucidate the habits of cows.

In 1946, 14 whaling nations founded the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Its purpose was "to protect all whales from further overfishing" through the setting of quotas and seasons for the catching of whales. When the commission first met in 1948, a scientific committee was struck and all signatory nations were required to collect and submit data on the number of whales taken.

Unfortunately, the quotas were set according to the appetites of the whaling industry and had very little to do with actual whale populations or their reproductive capacities. Even when reasonable quotas were set for a species, the IWC had no power to police its members. When a member nation found a quota restrictive, it could simply file an objection and continue whaling. For many years, the scientific committee's contribution to science was to count the dead, and it had its hands full: Under IWC regulation, the number of whales killed nearly doubled over the next 15 years.

Humankind was on the point of extinguishing the planet's most magnificent animals, creatures then as mysterious to us as the dinosaurs are today. It began to look as if the great whales would be studied from the freshest fossil record known to science.

Read More Show Less

Introduction

Introduction
The Surface Broken

The whale rolls on the boundary of air and sea, sovereign in one world but forever bound to the other. The ancients knew that whales are not fish, and they knew it by their breathing. As the whale swims, it stitches a seam of air and water with thread drawn, in part, from our own breath.

As much as their great size, it is our shared mammalian ancestry that attracts us to the whale. Perhaps all mammals are called to the sea; certainly, humans feel its pull. The difference between us and the whales is that 50 million years ago, their terrestrial ancestors answered that call. Spending more and more of their time in the water over generations, they evolved the fusiform bodies that allow them to slip through water as easily as we move through air.

Long before terrestrial evolution shaped the hands and the minds of human beings, the sea streamlined the limbs of the cetacean progenitors. Perhaps what we feel for whales and dolphins is as much envy as it is kinship. While the evolution of the hand equipped us ably for a life of technology -- a life of work -- the whales were relieved of manual tasks. They are like the cousin who quit her office job and went traveling.

With the exception of some birds1 whales and dolphins are the freest of animals. The gray whale travels the longest migration of any mammal -- 12000 kilometres (7500 miles) from the Bering Sea to the Baja peninsula. There is evidence that baleen whales can communicate with their own kind half an ocean away through low-frequency calls. When a blue whale dives, before its tail has left the surface its head is already deeper than most scuba divers will go. The worldmust seem a small place to beings 30 metres (100 feet) long.

It's natural enough to associate such freedom with a life of leisure. Whenever we see whales and dolphins, they seem to be playing. Whales appear to breach for the sheer joy of it and dolphins leap and roll before the bows of ships, sometimes for hours, before moving off to some random destination. As if that weren't enough to convince us of their ideal existence, many of the porpoises seem to be smiling privately about something we can only guess at. Their whole appearance suggests that they're having the time of their supremely adapted lives while we've been left waving from the dock.

But cetacean life is far from carefree. Toothed whales hunt in some of the coldest and darkest water on earth -- the polar and abyssal oceans. For baleen whales, the summer is a constant search for food. The remainder of the year is spent swimming half a world away to their breeding grounds, or sustaining their young. For dolphins, the open ocean is a truly restless place. Even in sleep, half the dolphin brain remains awake to keep its breathing hole above water.

Our view of whales has not always been as romantic as it is today. For millennia, people saw only their beached and decomposed corpses or their backs rolling by in the distance. Finding dread preferable to nescience, we imagined the worst. Medieval engravers often depicted whales with rhinoceros horns, walrus tusks, and even smoking chimney pots for blowholes. The eyes and teeth were greatly enlarged, and the baleen drawn as a beard or eyebrows. In general, they were made as fearsome-looking as possible.

There is probably no whale more famous than the title character of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. Although Captain Ahab remains one of the most imposing characters in all literature, even aided by a crazed crew he proved less than a match for a sperm whale with a grudge.

The Leviathan of the Bible, sent by God to swallow Jonah, is usually assumed to be a whale. Whales that swallow men persist in myths from cultures the world over, even in modern times. In 1891 a whaler, James Bartley, published his first-hand account of how a whale saved him -- albeit the hard way -- from drowning. According to Bartley, he fell overboard and hadn't even hit the water before a sperm whale swallowed him. Bartley's shipmates caught the whale within an hour and began butchering it. When they cut open the stomach, out spilled Bartley, his hair and skin bleached a deathly white by the whale's gastric juices.

After two weeks in a coma, Bartley made a complete recovery but stayed an albino for the rest of his days. Most authorities today dismiss the account as a hoax, arguing it would be impossible for a person to survive more than a few minutes in a whale's stomach.

Tales of sailors who owe their lives to whales are legion. There is at least one documented case of severa1 dolphins keeping a shipwrecked sailor afloat in the Gulf of Suez and warding off shark attacks until he could be rescued. Vietnamese fishermen traditionally believe that whales, dispatched by the god of the waters, may bear shipwrecked sailors and even what remains of their boats to safety. The whales, in turn, are guided by cuttlefish.

Natives of Peru and Brazil will not harm or even eat the flesh of the sacred river dolphins, which they call botos. They believe the botos will attempt to save anyone from drowning in the turbid waters of the Amazon, or failing this, bring the body to shore. In certain villages, the boto is thought to assume the form of a man who attends the annual carnival and makes love to young maidens.

Most other cetaceans have not been so fortunate in their dealings with human beings. As early as 3000 B.C., the Inuit hunted gray whales using only stone, driftwood, and the body parts of animals. They pursued the whales in open, walrus-skin boats with crews of up to eight paddlers. Using harpoons with pivoting heads, they anchored sealskin floats to the quarry with ropes also made of animal hides. The floats made the harpooned whale easier to track and would eventually drag the exhausted animal to the surface. There, the hunters killed it with a lance they fashioned by lashing a bone or obsidian head to the boat's mast.

Natives of the Aleutian Islands used a different method: Pursuing right or humpbacked whales in two-man kayaks, they stabbed the whale only once with a spear dipped in aconite, an alkaloid poison made from the ground roots of the monkshood plant. The hunters then turned about and fled as fast as they could paddle. If they succeeded in stabbing the whale in just the right spot -- a plexus of blood vessels just behind the flippers -- its body would be washed ashore within two or three days.

Whalers from Hokkaido also carried on poison whaling during the 1700s. Farther south along the Japanese coastline, nets and lances were used to kill whales, which were then towed to on-shore whaling stations. These stations had separate buildings for processing different body parts -- flukes, blubber, oil, and bone, and it was here that whaling began to change from a form of hunting to an industry.

Whaling from shore-launched, open boats had little effect on whale populations. It was not until the Dutch and English built large, competing fleets that entire species began to suffer. By 1630, some 18 000 Dutch seamen plied the fishery with over 300 ships. The British North American colonists joined the hunt in the 1700s with an innovation that further devastated Atlantic whale populations: the tryworks -- a brick oven used to render whale blubber into oil aboard ship. Before this invention, blubber peeled from the floating whale's body was stored in casks and taken ashore for processing before it spoiled. With the invention of the tryworks, ships could stay at sea for years, hunting and processing whales continuously. By the 19th century, American whalers had spread to the Pacific and eventually manned a fleet of more than 700 ships at the fishery's peak in 1876.

The whalers' prizes were oil and whalebone. Whalebone is another word for baleen, the combs of keratin that hang from the palates of several species of toothless whale. These whales use baleen to strain plankton, their principal food, from seawater. Humans also found it to be a highly useful material, flexible yet able to retain shapes imposed upon it under heat. It was made into corsets, umbrella ribs, handles, and brushes.

Whalers also took oil from the bodies of their quarry: From the bones and blubber of right whales they rendered whale oil for cooking and, much later, making margarine. More highly prized was sperm oil, which comes only from the spermaceti organ in the bulbous heads of sperm whales. This oil is inedible, but can be refined into a candle wax that burns with little smoke and a pure, white flame. Sperm whales were also the source of the finest lubricants known -- particularly the oil drained from their jaw hinges.

Today, these products seem a trivial end for such magnificent creatures, but in a world where petroleum was unknown, some of them must have been marvelous.

Whalers pursued the commercial species throughout the seven seas. The first species decimated was the right whale, so named because it was the "right" whale to catch. It swims slowly, lives close to shore, and yields large amounts of oil and baleen. By the turn of the century, right whales had almost disappeared from the Atlantic. Once the gray whales' calving grounds were discovered in the bays of the California coast, they were hunted past the point of commercial viability The bowhead whale, which lives only in Arctic waters, was also driven to near extinction by the mid-1800s for both its oil and baleen. Whalers took over 100 000 humpback whales, eventually leaving as few as 10000.

By 1860, whaling as an industry was already in trouble. All of the slow-swimming species had been hunted past the point of profitability The very large baleen whales -- blue, fin, and sei -- were too fast to be caught with ships driven by oars and sails. Nor did the bodies of these whales float, so even if you killed one, recovering its blubber before the body sank was nearly impossible. At the same time, vegetable oil and petroleum products began to replace sperm oil in lamps and candle wax.

Then, between 1863 and 1870, Norwegian Svend Foyn brought together several modern inventions that revitalized whaling. He replaced the old rowing boats with a steam-powered whale catcher. A gun mounted on the forward deck fired a heavy harpoon armed with a grenade that exploded inside the whale, and a winch powered by the ship's engines reeled in the body. For the first time, whale meat could be brought ashore quickly enough to remain edible.

Now, even the largest species could be caught and killed. To make matters worse for the whales, the 20th century seemed a conveyer belt of new and more efficient technologies to process their huge bodies. The diesel engine brought faster catcher ships. Air compressors kept afloat the bodies of species that would naturally sink -- an agonizing death for any whale that survived the exploding harpoon. Factory ships with stern slips and pressure cookers speeded butchering of the animals to the point where a 100-tonne blue whale could be flensed and rendered in under an hour. Support ships, helicopters, and sonar were all eventually brought to bear against the whales.

Modern factory fleets extended whaling into the rich feeding grounds of the Antarctic for the first time. By 1962, the southern oceans' 300 000 blue whales had been reduced to fewer than 1000. Inevitably, the whalers began to push the other great whales -- sei, fin, and minke -- toward extinction. In all, 1 400 000 were taken from Antarctic waters between 1920 and 1970.

During this time, much was learned about the whale's body. The whalers were crude anatomists, wielding scalpels the size of hockey sticks. But among them were surgeons who served aboard whaling ships and published valuable accounts on sperm whales in the mid-19th century. Some of the whale's most ardent hunters -- Captains Scammon and Beale -- were also naturalists who contributed most of what was known about right and gray whales before 1960.

Anatomy can reveal only so much about an animal's ecology and behavior, however, and relying on whalers to glean the secrets of whales was a bit like depending on the local butcher to elucidate the habits of cows.

In 1946, 14 whaling nations founded the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Its purpose was "to protect all whales from further overfishing" through the setting of quotas and seasons for the catching of whales. When the commission first met in 1948, a scientific committee was struck and all signatory nations were required to collect and submit data on the number of whales taken.

Unfortunately, the quotas were set according to the appetites of the whaling industry and had very little to do with actual whale populations or their reproductive capacities. Even when reasonable quotas were set for a species, the IWC had no power to police its members. When a member nation found a quota restrictive, it could simply file an objection and continue whaling. For many years, the scientific committee's contribution to science was to count the dead, and it had its hands full: Under IWC regulation, the number of whales killed nearly doubled over the next 15 years.

Humankind was on the point of extinguishing the planet's most magnificent animals, creatures then as mysterious to us as the dinosaurs are today. It began to look as if the great whales would be studied from the freshest fossil record known to science.

Read More Show Less

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