those darling cetaceans

I have always been fascinated by cetaceans.  They were my first in-depth animal study, along with learning everything I could about dinosaurs.  By the time I went on my first whale watch, I was calling species on the basis of fin markings, back hump profiles while sounding, and facial characteristics. My family went on a cruise back when I was in junior high, and the most fascinating part of the trip was that dolphins were cruising at the bow during the fire drill. I was very excited, and correcting people on the fact that they were spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), not bottlenose dolphins (Tusiops truncatus).

I love the fact that when people ask me where my office is I get to say “Hidden right behind the sperm whale skeleton.”  I get to marvel over 2 baileen and 1 toothed whale skeleton every time I walk to the restroom. Sometimes people crack me up when they ask “are they real?” Or “do these really exist?” After all, we must be the museum of fictional history, not natural history. Of course, if that were true we wouldn’t need these enormous skeletons overtaxing the building.

The difficult part to me is to explain why these critters are so awesome.  I can talk about all the things about them that we understand that are biologically interesting and quirky, but there’s a point at which my passion cannot be explained.  When I talk about good reasons we should keep these amazingly huge and diverse animals on the planet I run into a wall with people who are not really stimulated by something that may, in their mindset, be in competition with human needs. I like survival, but not at the cost of diversity of the planet. A less people approach is fine with me, and it will likely happen whether or not we do so intentionally.

Back in college I had a bit of a breakdown while talking to Joe, getting all up in arms about the International Whaling Commission and how Japan and Norway get away with whatever they want even if science doesn’t support their claims. I had been reading Among Whales (which I highly recommend if you have even the slightest interest in whales), and was really inspired by the power of experience. This utter powerlessness of ability to convince was combined with an article in Harpers about how the only things that were going to remain on the planet at some unforseen point in the future were cockroaches, rats, dandelions, and maybe people. I had a crisis of convictions and wondered why I wasn’t just studying cartoons or doing something else entirely in my head 24 hours a day to prevent me from having to face the fact that people are not going to care about the things i care about. (I got out of it by thinking “I don’t care, I want to try to fix things anyhow because to know and not do anything is more painful for me.”  I make no claims on what I think other people should do with their lives, I just want to do something that makes me happier to some degree, and I don’t ignore things well.)

Anyhow, I was talking about Among Whales. Roger Payne is an awesome marine biologist who had the wonderful idea to record humpback whale song.  In terms of a conservation movement, he’s brilliant, because while people may not feel so strongly about the elusive blue whale (who is just thorougly enchanting and amazing, especially once you consider that dinosaurs are just kind of puny alongside it), everyone knows humpback whales.  People think they’re great, and some people even listen to their music. In a way, they are the hot rock stars of the whale world, and I wonder if other whale species roll their eyes when the humpbacks bust out their 45 minute tunes that are an improvisation of what some other humpback sung before. Think of that friend who hates remixes because they’re not faithful enough to the original, or think of that friend who doesn’t really like listening to music.

The BBC has had a radio piece called “War of the Whales,” which documents some of the struggles for people trying to work on recovering whale populations. There’s definitely a pro-whale slant to the piece, and in some senses I actually like what I hear the Japanese saying in their interviews. I am all about doing things sustainably and well, so the idea of taking the two uncontrolled harvesting countries and allowing them to harvest in a more controlled manner sounds awesome. In a way, the ethical argument that no whale should ever be killed, while admirable, is getting in the way. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to be sensitive to poaching when we’re so busy worrying about two countries as a whole.

Sperm whales, the critters that lay claim to that skeleton i work behind, are brought up again in the broadcast as Roger Payne notes: “Sperm whales have the largest brains of anything that has ever existed as far as we know, nothing else seems to come close. They’re doing something very interesting with their brains, I don’t know what.” I love this statement. There are several hypotheses as to the function of the enormous brain on sperm whales, but really we (humans) have no real idea what is going on for them. Remember that sperm whales outdo any kind of diving we can, and challenge much of our motor assisted diving. If we could figure out communication then likely we’d get a full biological rundown of the ever elusive Architeuthis, or giant squid. That information may be limited to “yummy,” but would likely also include some behavioral clues such as “hits me all the time.”

Speaking of whales and research and conservation, I am highly happy about a conservation publicity extravaganza going on at Greenpeace. There is an event they are prepping called the “Great Whale Trail Expedition” where tagged humpbacks will be followed across the south Pacific. The best part of the preparations has been the drive to name the whales based off of suggested name submissions.  The current leading name is “Mister Splashy Pants” (my personal vote), which makes me very happy. Unabashed cuteness goes a long way, and in the same way that everyone knows Flipper, I’m hoping that Mr. Splashy Pants will captivate people.

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