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Tuesday April 21, 2009

Whale protection

Blue whales may not be as threatened as once thought but they still need protection.

ONE of the most memorable moments in Dr Bruce Mate’s career in studying whales was the first time he touched a whale, and it looked him in the eye.

“That was a powerful moment. I feel a kinship with whales ... they’re mammals, they have hair, they breathe air, they nurse their young with milk. We’re related to them fundamentally but yet, they do some things that are so bizarre compared to humans. They live in a place we think of as hostile, but it’s the only option they have. And all the threats to them are because of us,” said the 63-year-old director of Oregon State University Endowed Marine Mammal Programme.

Happy duo: Blue whales swimming in the Santa Barbara, California area. – Flip Nicklin/National Geographic

Mate, one of the world’s leading whale experts, was in Kuala Lumpur recently for an exhibition promoting a National Geographic Channel documentary called Big Blue. The two-hour documentary follows an international team of scientists led by Mate as they study blue whales, the largest animal in the world. The show focuses in part on the team’s work at an area called The Dome off Costa Rica. It was there that they encountered a new-born blue whale calf for the first time.

“That made The Dome a very unique area because of all the nine populations of blue whales we know of, this is the first time anyone has discovered a place where calves were born,” said Mate.

They also found over half of the whales at the Costa Rica site to be untagged – which means these animals had come from elsewhere.

Mate reckons blue whales are less exploited compared to other whale species because of the unpredictable nature of their haunts.

“This offshore location (where blue whales group) varies every year because it’s decided by the collision of two ocean currents. Because of that, whalers can never figure out where to go each year and that has kept them from killing all the whales.”

Whale-mate: Dr Bruce Mate with a life-size replica of a blue whale calf at the Big Blue Exhibition at Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur, recently.

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest threat to whales right now is not whaling, according to Mate. “The only species that are extensively caught are minke whales and they are still pretty common. The biggest threat to whales is probably other human activities, and us being naïve about them,” he said.

He gave an example of the well-known grey whales of the north coast of North America. If that population drops by 10% a year, no one would know if that has been the trend for the past eight to 10 years. So no one would act on it. “It will still take a really dramatic thing before people will do something about the situation. So what hope do we have for the less-known species?”

Growing up in a small town near Chicago, right smack in the middle of North America with nary an ocean in sight, Mate’s personal journey began with a high school biology teacher who made the subject special and inspired him to go into marine biology.

At 24, he attended a conference where a speaker said no one knew the migration habits of sea lions. “I thought at the time, ‘Surely he can’t be an expert. After all, these are really big animals. How can we not know that?’ ” Mate recalled. “A week later, I found out he was correct, and just decided, ‘Well, I’m going to do just that!’ ”

Mate then developed a tagging device to track sea lions and earned his doctorate at the University of Oregon in 1973 by studying sea lion migrations. His work drew the attention of whale experts who suggested that he design a way to tag whales.

“It took me about two years to learn how to attach things to whales, and later I began tracking grey whales off the coast by driving down the highway,” he said.

He then received funding to pioneer a satellite tracking system that has since become crucial in learning about blue whales.

“The first satellite tags we put out were in 1983 and 1984 on humpback whales off the east coast of Canada. Today, we’ve tracked blue whales for up to 538 days and sperm whales for up to 30 months,” he said.

Every population of whales that he has tagged has made a huge change in our understanding of whales. “The first big population we did was on Wright whales. We thought they were slow-moving, near shore and surface skin breathers. We found out however, that they are fast, went off-shore routinely and go deep regularly, which was totally opposite of what we assumed,” he said.

Mate said the satellite tagging technology coupled with National Geographic’s revolutionary Crittercam has enabled scientists to learn more about blue whales in the last decade than they had in the past 100 years. The Crittercam (essentially a video camera) is mounted onto the whale’s back on an extended pole so that it overlooks the whale’s head. It is recovered when the whales surface.

“Thanks to the Crittercam, people are going to see the whale’s perspective in this film. It gives us a lot of details about what the animal does during its dives, so we understand a little more about how it lives, and how we can behave to make its life better and help the population recover ... because we now have eyes and ears on the animal.”

One of the biggest threats now for whales is collision with vessels. Mate said that half of Wright whale deaths were due to this.

“If you add that to natural mortality, you’re at least doubling what nature does. And for an animal that breeds only once every three to five years, the population might not recover. We have to do something about the mortality that we’re causing or that population is going to go extinct.”

Even though blue whales aren’t as threatened by ship collisions, they still found four blue whales killed each month while working at the Gulf of California. The threat to blue whales is more a combination of krill harvests, the potential whaling interest, shipping and noise pollution from the oil and gas industry, and military activities.

Mate reckons that whale conservation is an international endeavour since the animal moves through the water of four to five nations.

“A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. We all need to co-operate to keep all resources in good shape. And because of the popularity of whales, they are a good poster child for the environment,” he said.

“In 1972 when we had the first con­ference on the environment, blue whales were a symbol of human stupidity, the abuse of nature and over-harvesting. We thought that there were so few blue whales left that they would never be able to find each other to breed and calf.

“We know now that there were more (at the time), and I’m happy to say that blue whales are doing much better than we thought, and in many areas they are doing better because we stopped hunting them in 1966.

“But if we’re going to sustain these things, then we have to have a certain measure of protection and regulation. We should be thinking as if we are caretakers of the planet for our grandchildren whom we’ve never met yet because if we don’t have that attitude, it won’t be there for them.”

Fast facts

  • Blue whales are the largest animals to have ever inhabited the Earth. They are larger than any of the great dinosaurs.
  • They can weigh up to 200 tonnes (heavier than 40 Asian elephants) and can grow up to 30m long – that’s the equivalent of two city buses, bumper to bumper, and longer than a basketball court.
  • Blue whales dive for 10 to 20-minute intervals and feed at depths of up to 100m. They consume an average of four tonnes of the shrimp-like krills in a day, the equivalent of 64,000 hamburgers.
  • They have a heart the size of a Mini Cooper that can weigh close to 450kg. A human could actually crawl through its major arteries.
  • It is one of the loudest creatures on the planet, and can produce sounds as loud as a jet engine (blue whale: 188 decibels; jet engine: 140 decibels). It can also communicate with other whales up to 1,600km away.
  • Blue whales spend almost all of their lives underwater and surface for only seconds at a time to fill their lungs. The sprays from their blowholes can be higher than a two-storey building (about 10m).

Catch Big Blue on National Geographic Channel (Astro channel 553) on April 24 (6pm), April 25 (10pm) and April 26 (1pm).

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