#WhaleWednesday – North Atlantic Right Whale

 

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The North Atlantic right whale, as some of you may already be aware, has been in the news recently as the Canadian Federal Fisheries officials investigate the death of yet another endangered right whale on the Canadian east coast. The department confirmed on Tuesday August 1, 2017 that a whale was found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after washing ashore on the west coast of Newfoundland. In total the carcasses of 10 endangered right whales have been found in the Gulf since June 7 of this year. Jerry Conway of the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, NB, said the deaths are disastrous for an already vulnerable species. “We feel there is tremendous urgency,” he said “This has had catastrophic ramifications on the right whale population, this number of whales being killed when we only know of three calves being born this year. It certainly indicates a rapid decline in the population”

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What are the threats to the North Atlantic right whale? North Atlantic populations have been decimated by historical over exploitation by whaling industry. The species get its name from early whalers, who considered them to be the “right” whales to hunt. Their slower pace, the fact that they come close to land, their tendency to float after being killer and their “productivity” in terms of oil made them lucrative whales to target. Today, the species is threatened by ship collisions, entanglement in fishing nets, and separation from calving areas because of shipping traffic. Since the right whale is found in coastal habitats, it is more likely to suffer impacts of human activity than more open-water cetaceans.

The North Atlantic right whale is mostly found along the Atlantic coast of North America, where it is threatened by entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions. Some scientists believe these whales have already been extirpated from the eastern North Atlantic and now survive only on the east coast of Canada and the U.S.

The right whale is characterized by a symmetrical skill, paired blowholes, and rows of baleen plates for feeding on plankton. Males can reach up to 12.9m, while females can reach up to 18m and weigh approximately 96, 000 kg or 105tons.  They are a relatively slow swimmer, averaging about 8 km/hr and typically makes a series of 5 or 6 shallow shallow dives, the submerges for around 20 minutes. Right whales emit a number of low frequency sounds, mostly during courtship. It is estimated that they can live longer than 30 years and up to about 75 years.

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This large whale mostly inhabits temperate waters and compared to other similar sized cetaceans is found more often in coastal waters, especially during breeding season.

Whereas groups of North Atlantic right whales once numbered in the hundreds in feeding grounds, nowadays they usually travel alone or in groups of 2-3 sometimes up to about 12. Groups splinter off for feeding, most likely the result of the sheer quantity of food required for each individual whale. These aggregations are not fixed, and individuals have been observed to change groups. One notable exception is in the Bay of Fundy, where up to two thirds of the remaining population aggregates in the summer to feed.

North Atlantic right whales feed mostly on copepods and krill larvae. About 2200-5500 lbs may be consumed every day. The right whale feeds by swimming through a swarm of prey with its mouth open and the head slightly emerging on the surface. Having filtered the prey with its baleen plates, it drives out the water, dive, and swallows the food, as a process known as skimming.

Females breed about once every three to five years. Gestation is about one year and the single calf is nursed for 9-12 months. Pregnant females migrate to area off the coast of Georgia and Florida to give birth between December and March and then migrate north to their feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy.  Scientists are confident there is at least one other nursery area but have yet to discover it – where these whales mate is also a mystery.

As with other mammals, right whale mothers and their calves display strong attachments, with the calf keeping in close contact with its mother by swimming up on her back or butting her with its head. Sometimes the mother may roll over to hold her calf with her flippers.

 

#WhaleWednesday – Beluga Whales

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The beluga whale is a relatively small toothed whale that is brown-gray at birth and bright white in adulthood. The beluga is one of just two species in the “white whales” family, the other being the narwhal. As they are closely related and do not have the characteristic tusk of the males, juvenile and female Narwhals can be incorrectly identified as belugas.

Belugas, however, are typically more solidly white than their grayish cousins.  Adult belugas are also slightly larger than Narwhals, reaching lengths of around 18 feet (5.5 m).  Interestingly, the beluga whale is the only species of cetacean (whales and dolphins) that has a movable neck.  Belugas can move their heads up and down and from side to side.

Beluga whales are restricted to the Arctic Ocean and adjacent waters.  They feed in shallow, coastal waters during the summer and near the ice edge in winter.  Some populations undergo long, seasonal migrations, while others are more resident in nature.  They eat a variety of fish and invertebrate prey.  Killer whales and polar bears have been known to attack and eat beluga whales.  Scientists believe that belugas may swim far into ice-covered waters to avoid Killer Whales but that this may put them in greater risk of predation by Polar Bears.

Occasionally, belugas can be observed far inland, swimming up coastal rivers as far as hundreds of miles.  Scientists do not know if these trips into freshwater are for feeding or for other purposes, but belugas are apparently unafraid of very shallow water.  In fact, some individuals have been known to survive being stranded/beached by patiently waiting for the return of the high tide.  Belugas are also known for their loud, clear vocalizations.  They often “sing,” and can even be heard above the ocean surface by people in boats or onshore.

Northern Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coastline is home to the world’s largest population of beluga whales. More than 57,000 beluga whales gather in the region between mid-June to mid-September.

You can check out Explore.org live cams in Churchill: it’s the office season now – but the live cam highlights are definitely worth checking out!

http://explore.org/live-cams/player/beluga-boat-cam-on-deck

http://explore.org/live-cams/player/beluga-boat-cam-underwater

Conservation scientists consider the beluga to be near threatened with extinction.  Climate change is causing rapid changes to the Arctic ecosystem that affect beluga habitat, and chemical pollution in the Arctic is particularly bad, risking the health of large predators like this species.  These whales are hunted, legally, by indigenous peoples all around the Arctic, but this ongoing hunt is not generally thought to threaten the species.  Climate change and pollution are likely more significant threats to beluga populations, though further research is necessary before accurate predictions can be made.

 

Inside the Tanks Documentary

The wait it almost over! Inside The Tanks Documentary will be available to watch online TOMORROW: bit.ly/insidethetanks

This documentary is unique in its approach. Presenter and Producer Jonny Meah blasts the marine captivity debate wide open, giving all sides of the debate a chance to have their say, with in depth interviews from The Born Free Foundation, Dr Ingrid Visser, John Hargrove, and in a world exclusive on the topic, an interview with The Zoological Director of Marineland Antibes, Jon Kershaw.

Take a look at the trailer now:

 

#WhaleWednesday – Humpback Whale

The humpback whale is a charismatic species of large whale that has a truly global distribution, living from Antarctica to the Arctic and from the coast to the open ocean. The humpback whale is one of the largest animals on Earth, growing to lengths of more than 50 feet and weights of 40 tons. This incredible size is only possible because of this species’ aquatic lifestyles and the buoyancy provided by seawater. On land, an animal as large as the humpback whale would almost certainly be crushed under its own weight.

Interestingly, though they are enormous, humpback whales are not predatory.  They filter feed for tiny krill or small pelagic fishes and are totally harmless to people (other than through accidental collisions).  This life history strategy is common among several large animals in the ocean, including the whale shark, the basking shark, and the other great whales.  Like all whales, humpback whales are mammals and give live birth to very large calves.  These whales are known for their singing; during courtship, the males compose intricate songs to attract females.  The killer whale is the only species known to attack and eat humpback whales (always juveniles).

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Humpback Whale – Victoria, BC – Photo Credit Mel Komus

Every year, humpback whales undergo incredible migrations between feeding and breeding grounds.  They feed near the poles and give birth in the tropics, and each year, individual humpback whales travel as much as sixteen thousand miles (25,000 km) between these two areas.  They only eat in their winter feeding grounds and live off fat reserves for the rest of the year, including while migrating.

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Humpback Whale – Victoria, BC – Photo Credit Mel Komus

During the height of commercial whaling, the humpback whale was hunted almost to extinction.  Global populations declined by more than 90% before regulators enacted a worldwide moratorium on hunting in 1966.  Fortunately, the humpback whale has recovered remarkably well, and populations continue to increase.  Now, this great whale has come all the way back from the brink of extinction to be considered a species of least concern.