I’m sitting at my desk, while delightful Niki is out on the water to deploy Will and Otis, Jr. So I figured I should maybe write a blog.
Niki is helping me out (SO MUCH) by going out and being my acoustician on the water – actually deploying the gliders while I am stuck at my computer piloting them. She has the help of the awesome Jim and Doug from the Oregon Coast Aquarium dive team, and their wonderful, fast boat, the Gracie Lynn.
We got up nice and early and got to the lab before first light to load the truck and transport the gliders to the South Beach Marina (such a long drive…not). Here I ran some self-tests on both gliders, connected to them via serial connection. Of course what should have taken 45 mins took 1.5 hours, but that’s science! We loaded everything up and off they headed – straight west about 35 miles off shore, to get the gliders over deep water.
We are conducting a short engineering test before the gliders head to the Gulf of Mexico for their summer field work. Otis Jr is new (to replace our beloved SG608, Otis), and his PAM system needs to be tested. Will got new batteries after his flight in Catalina last summer, so we want to test that he is all in good working shape too (his weight is slightly different now so gotta check how he flies.)
So why hurry up and wait? Well the last few weeks have been crazy hectic trying to get SG639 set up and tested, with LOTS of issues. We are in a time crunch to get the gliders shipped to Louisiana before the June cruise. So we got them ready for the test flight (rush rush rush) and then we had to wait for a weather window to actually deploy them because, well, weather on the Oregon Coast in April (wait wait wait).
But today we got a window. And fingers crossed we will recover on Sunday (its just a short test).
One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling 1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying on and eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in professionally shadowing Cher for months at a time.
Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story, and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history, — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.
The cost was enormous.
Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans… ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction, or in some cases past the brink of extinction, to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.
While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.
Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists. But what does it mean? Technically and in terms of conservation?
Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.
Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*. No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behavior. It appears to be a learned behavior; culture.
Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobelia feeding. Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright you grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat. This is where conservation comes in.
During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds without the knowledge of any alternatives.
So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe it allows us another way to relate to these animals. More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.