Happy Whale-o-ween! A Scary Look at Our Past Portrayals of Whales and Dolphins

These images from long ago tell an interesting story – from seeing whales as sea monsters or islands, and dolphins as friends or half-plant hybrids, these early paintings show our struggle to comprehend whales and dolphins. Interestingly, the earliest depiction (1500 BC) is also the most accurate. (Images and text are from Strange Science).
Year: 1539
Scientist/artist: Olaus Magnus
Originally published in: Carta Marina
Now appears in: Sea Monsters by Joseph Nigg
After pointing out that a “monstrous Fish” appeared off the coast of England in 1532, Olaus Magnus wrote, “Now I shall revive the memory of a monstrous Hog that was found afterwards, Anno 1537, in the same German Ocean, and it was a Monster in every part of it. For it had a Hog’s head, and a quarter of a Circle, like the Moon, in the hinder part of its head, four feet like a Dragon’s, two eyes on both sides of his Loyns, and a third in his belly inkling toward his Navel; behind he had a Forked-Tail, like to other Fish commonly.” Olaus Magnus then went on to compare the beast to heretics who, he believed, lived like swine. The naturalist had been born a Catholic, but his homeland of Sweden, like most of northern Europe, was Protestant by the time he produced his map so rich in sea monsters. Remaining a Catholic, Olaus was evetually named Archbishop of Uppsala, though he had hardly any fellow believers to oversee there; he and his brother had already moved to southern Europe. His Catholic disdain for Protestants was more than reciprocated, with Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon distributing pictures of a “pope-ass” and a “monk-calf.” Besides claiming thousands of lives, Europe’s religious divisions in the 16th and 17th centuries caused a renewed interest in monsters (sea bishops proliferated) with Christians of both flavors blaming each other for the weird new creatures.
Year: 1560
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Icones Animalium
Now appears in: Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis
Gesner was one of the finest naturalists of the 16th century, but he occasionally misfired. In this woodcut, a mother whale and her young look awfully porcine.

Year: 1514
Scientist/artist: Albrecht Dürer
Originally appeared in: Arion
Now appears in: Nature and Its Symbols by Lucia Impelluso, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
According to the Greek legend, the gifted singer Arion was tossed overboard by sailors who wanted to steal his stuff. By the time he was thrown into the sea, however, he had bewitched a dolphin who came to his rescue. This dolphin sports more protuberances than any seen in nature, but in fairness to Dürer, who was known for his realism, the fact that he was illustrating a legend may have given him a greater sense of artistic license.
Century: 17th
Now appears in: The Discovery of Time edited by Stuart McCready
Taken from a 17th-century collection of fossil illustrations, this looks like a cross between a dolphin and a plant.
Century: 10th
Scientist/artist: Richard Fournival
Originally appeared in: Bestiaire d’Amour of Richard Fournival
Now appears in: The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences by Frank Dawson Adams
Here two sailors cook their dinner on the back of a whale so big that they have mistaken it for an island and landed on it. Descriptions of island-sized whales were common in Classical times as well as the Middle Ages.
Year: 1621
Scientist/artist: Honorius Philoponus
Originally published in: Novi Orbis Indiae Occidentalis
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts and Sea Monsters by Joseph Nigg
The whale-as-island made another appearance in this 17th-century engraving. It shows the whale, Jasconius, in an account of the voyage of Saint Brendan. Some of the monks were preoccupied with mass when the nature of the island became obvious.
stridolYear: c.1500 BC
Now appears in: “The Most Ancient Explorations of the Mediterranean” by Marco Masseti in Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences
This pretty little dolphin puts to shame some dolphin depictions that follow by more than 2,500 years. It appears as a decoration on a blade from the Late Helladic I period, now on display at the National Museum in Athens. This image suggests that observations of dolphins were more factual than fanciful several centuries before Homer composed his epic poems. In fact, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers likely traveled the Mediterranean Sea some 13,000 years ago, so locals had plenty of time to learn about the region’s wildlife. Modern biologists suspect that this cetacean might be the striped dolphin, or Stenella ceruleoalba.

SeaWorld Faring Poorly in CNN Poll – Only 14% of Respondents Would Bring Their Familes

Update: CNN has added yet another showing with a live blog (so you can give them feedback) on Sunday 10/27/13 at 9PM EDT.
CNN will show an encore presentation of  “Blackfish on Saturday, 10/26/13, at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST.
cnn poll jpg small crop
Starting early in the day yesterday with an interview by Seattle area Orca Network’s Howard Garrett, CNN showcased an impressive line-up of experts to debate the killer whale captivity issue. Journalist Tim Zimmermann appeared on Crossfire while AC360 featured orca expert Dr. Naomi Rose along with Blackfish film producer Gabriela Cowperwaithe. CNN invited the public to ask questions and to send tweets as Blackfish was shown repeated, and they ran a poll to gauge public sentiment on taking families to SeaWorld.
Because SeaWorld refused all requests to appear, the network managed to find pro-captivity spokesmen but their appearance only served to accentuate SeaWorld’s absence from the table since they were not able to address specific SeaWorld issues raised by the film.
CNN has posted this  Crossfire segment, in which a clear request is made to SeaWorld to come out and speak to the public:

In an article at TakePart, author David Kirby outlines the brewing controversy:

Tonight, the documentary about captive orcas, Blackfish, premieres on CNN. The film centers on the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, raising serious questions about the highly profitable practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. While SeaWorld has criticized film, they have declined requests by CNN to be interviewed on camera. But, this week, company spokesman Fred Jacobs did provide written answers to a few of the most poignant issues in the documentary.
-Millions of SeaWorld visitors, Jacobs wrote to CNN, “have experienced killer whales in a way that is personal, enriching and inspirational,” adding that it is “our hope” that every SeaWorld visitor will leave the park “with a greater understanding of and appreciation for all the animals we display, including killer whales.”
-And while SeaWorld is certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meaning they meet minimum conservation requirements, during the several times I [Kirby] visited the park to research my book, I heard virtually nothing that would educate people about killer whales in the wild, how long they live, their social bonds, their hunting patterns, and ways to conserve their threatened natural habitats. Instead, I “learned” that whales like blaring music, roaring crowds, back-flips and French kissing.

-In Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity, Dr. Naomi Rose writes “The science is in, and we should realize that nothing—not profit, not education, not conservation – can justify keeping this large, social, intelligent predator in a small box.” Her paper highlighted “the growing body of scientific evidence showing that orcas do not adapt to captivity,” including the example of captive female orcas giving birth too young and too often, which lead to a higher death rate for both mother and child.

CNN is challenging us all to look behind the veil of loud music and bright lights at killer whale shows, and to notice the price paid by the animals. We must choose whether we there is any place for that in modern society, and the one argument that theme parks make, that if it hadn’t been for captivity no one would care, is irrelevant.
At least 86% of us do care, and don’t want to see animals suffer for amusement.

Update – video of CNN interview with Howard Garrett now available:

Newt Gingrich Favors a Better Environment for SeaWorld’s Killer Whales – Watch “Blackfish” on CNN Tonight (10/24/13)

(See below for “Blackfish” show times tonight on CNN, and the AC360 interview with the filmmaker)
images newt gingrichOn CNN’s Crossfire today which discussed “Blackfish”, there weren’t a lot of shots fired, other than over SeaWorld’s bow – it would seem that when it comes to animal welfare, politics becomes muted and the lines between parties become blurred.
Conservative pundit Newt Gingrich first made a very clear point that SeaWorld owes the public transparency and rebuked them for not sending a representative debate captivity on today’s show, then quietly compared SeaWorld’s facilities to a 40-year-old zoo.
Co-host Van Jones stressed the unnatural conditions of captivity and effectively kept homing in on those points, directing his questions to the Director of Conservation for Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium Grey Stafford.  Predictably, Stafford tried to rationalize the poor conditions for whales – insisting that SeaWorld was still learning how to take care of orcas after 40 years – and defended the glitzy circus style shows by repeatedly pointing out that the shows are “fun”, but could still become more educational.
Journalist and associate producer of the film “Blackfish”, Tim Zimmermann acknowledged that there may be some animals that can live well in zoos, but stated that self-aware, social, and cooperative large animals like orcas are not among them. He carefully pointed out that in the decades that killer whales have been kept in captivity, no improvements have been made in the lifespan for the captives, which is considerably shorter than in the wild.
Tonight’s airing of “Blackfish” will be followed by the Anderson Cooper 360 show, with filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Animal Welfare Institute’s Naomi Rose.
It is shaping up to be an interesting evening.

“Blackfish” will be shown on CNN at 6PM PDT and 9PM EDT
Again at 9PM EDT and Midnight PDT
The AC360 special is at 11PM EDT

Our Resident Killer Whales Owe Much to Ken Balcomb

When it comes to knowledge of the only identified resident population of killer whales in the U.S., no one can top Ken Balcomb – nor can anyone top his dedication to a unique and threatened species. He has received many honors in his career, but I can imagine that this one Sunday (10/13/13) in the small town of Friday Harbor, Washington, will be among the more meaningful.

Friday Harbor Film Festival will be honoring long time Orca researcher Ken Balcomb as our “Local Hero” at the Sunday night award ceremony, along with awarding the “Audience Choice” for favorite film of the entire event followed by a special screening of that film. (Friday Harbor Film Festival)
What may make this award special for him is that two of the films in the festival, Blackfish and Keiko – The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy, illustrate the profound changes we have made in our understanding of these animals, and much of that can be traced back to his work.

Thirty-seven Years of Research
For almost four decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has conducted an annual photo-identification study of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population that frequents the inland waters of Washington State and lower British Columbia.
Since their initiation, these studies have provided unprecedented baseline information on population dynamics and demography, social structure, and individual life histories. More is known, in fact, about this population of killer whales than about any other group of marine mammals in the world.

Today our mission remains the same: to conduct benign studies of regional killer whales (orcas) for the purpose of conserving populations and informing both the government and the public of their ecosystem needs.
CWR is a non-profit [IRS 501(c)(3)] corporation registered with the Attorney General in Washington State. CWR funding historically has come from government contracts, other non-profit organizations, and charitable public contributions. Like many organizations these days, CWR is faced with government funding cutbacks. As our funding from government agencies declines each year, we must look to the public for more support. In 2013, we face dramatic reductions in our funding. This change may seriously effect our ability to monitor and protect not only the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, but all killer whales in this area. We need your support, now more than ever.

Captive Orca Helps Newly Caught Orcas Start to Eat Dead Fish

One of the problems that wild caught orcas face in adjusting to captivity is learning to accept food that is alien to them – all orcas are forced to eat the same frozen and thawed fish, whether they are accustomed to eating fish, birds, or mammals. Given the mature age of these reported captures in Russia, the adjustment must be even greater.

Photo courtesy Orca Aware
Narnia is rumored go to an aquarium in Moscow next year. Photo courtesy Orca Aware.

We know that these whales have complex social lives and enduring ties, so while it is noteworthy that a captive whale, Narnia, helped the distressed wild ones it is not surprising.  Given the close proximity of where these were captured to where Narnia was caught, it may turn out that they are from the same family group, making it even more likely that they would accept her guidance. Reported by Russian Orcas Homepage:

          10.10.2013 More details about the recent capture. An adult male, adult female and juvenile female killer whale were captured recently in the Sea of Okhotsk, eastern Russia, about 50 km south of the place where the young female orca Narnia was captured a year ago. They were transported in trucks for more than 1000 km to the south to the net enclosure near Nakhodka (Vladivostok area) and placed in the same net pen where Narnia was kept for the past year.
The three captives were reportedly in a very bad condition after the transport. They refused to eat. The trainers could do nothing. Finally, we’ve heard, that Narnia herself tried something. She brought fish to the three captives and gave it to them. In this way she was responsible for persuading them to eat. This is not the first time one captive has helped others in the same situation. In the book Orca: The Whale Called Killer, Charlie Chin (M1) from the transient M pod encouraged a female in the pod to eat salmon�of course this is strange food for transients�after more than 2 months of refusing to eat.
Regarding the four orcas now in Nakhodka, two of them are rumoured to be headed for Moscow in November to be placed in the Oceanarium which is being built in the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Two others are rumoured to have been offered for sale abroad.

Charlie Chin managed to escape, but it is hard to imagine such a good ending for these three whales. Capturing adult animals is absurd, given how difficult it is to maintain and transport them.
Unless of course, you intend to breed them, and no doubt Seaworld will be first in line if they do, given their ingrown gene pool.

Sea of Okhotsk
Sea of Okhotsk

Retired Circus Elephant’s Story Will Warm Your Heart – Don’t Captive Whales Deserve This?

Two elephants, separated for 20 years, were reunited at an elephant sanctuary, and their joy in being together again is unmistakable.

The elephant handler’s emotional farewell to his charge is something anyone who has had to let go of an animal can relate to – we grieve our loss while embracing the knowledge that we have done what is right for another being. Whether it is releasing something once caged to the wild, or having to put our companion animals to sleep, we understand that there comes a point when holding on is not in the best interest of these beings who share our lives.
Remarkably similar to elephants in many ways, killer whales in captivity spend their lives endlessly performing repetitive tricks for our amusement, and similarly deserve retirement – yet they must perform until the day they die.
One particular whale has lived for decades with no companion of her own species in a tiny pool. The name given to her by the Miami Seaquarium where she lives is “Lolita”, the performing circus whale. Would she too recognize her family if reunited with them? Ken Balcomb of The Center for Whale Research believes so, and in any case he feels that it is an important question to explore.

It must be hard for the family who believe they own the whale to consider giving her up, but they might be surprised to discover that doing so may be one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. We really don’t know how deeply captive whales and dolphins bond with the people who care for them, but if it is similar to elephants and other wild animals, then there is a good chance that Lolita would remember those who treated her kindly if she were retired.

Was the following a coincidence? We still know so little about animal perceptions that it is impossible to say with certainty, but it is remarkable:

Saying Goodbye: Elephants Hold Apparent Vigil To Mourn Their Human Friend
Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist and author known as “The Elephant Whisperer” who passed away on March 2nd, 2012. In 1999, Anthony rescued and rehabilitated a group of wild South African elephants who were deemed dangerous. And the animals appear to remember what he did for them: when Anthony passed away, a group of elephants visited his house in the South African KwaZulu for a two-day vigil, according to his family.
When Anthony died of a heart attack, the elephants, who were grazing miles away in different parts of the park, travelled over 12 hours to reach his house. According to his son Jason, both herds arrived shortly after Anthony’s death. They hadn’t visited the compound where Anthony lived for a year and a half, but Jason says “in coming up there on that day of all days, we certainly believe that they had sensed it”.

We will never know how a retired orca will react until we try, but we owe to the whales, and to ourselves, to try. Urge NMFS To Rectify Exclusion of Lolita from the ESA and bring Lolita home!

Stranded Sperm Whale Met With Gruesome Death – Help Prevent Similar Events in the Future

On Saturday (10/5/13) a sperm whale was discovered after it stranded in a bay in the Philippines. It had met with a gruesome death at the hands of poachers – although the whale was beginning to decompose the red blood around it showed that it had been alive when it was attacked. Jojo Bascug, who is the province’s consultant on environment ” pitied the whale’s fate in the hands of the poachers who only wanted a portion of its body for sale”

The whales had holes in its head, and its stomach had been slit in order that the thieves could search for ambergris, a substance that sperm whales produce which is valuable to the perfume industry. (To help prevent this happening in the future, please see this project*).
Nearby, in another part of the Philippines, two Risso’s dolphins and a striped dolphin that also stranded met with a better fate.  The authorities were notified and were able to assess the dolphins, so the two Risso’s were returned to the ocean, while the striped dolphin was taken in to be rehabilitated.

risso's dolphin strand philippines
STUDENTS of Tanjay City Science High School, supervised by Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer Jac Senagan (left), provide care for the stranded Risso’s dolphin off the Tanjay City shoreline last Thursday. SIDNEY R. LEE/CONTRIBUTOR newsinfo.inquirer.net

Given the nature of the striped dolphin’s injuries however, there may be little that the authorities can do.

In Pangasinan, a rare striped dolphin was found stranded at a Lingayen beach in Lingayen town on Friday. Personnel from the provincial disaster risk reduction and management council tried to bring the dolphin back to the Lingayen Gulf but it kept on returning to the shoreline, according to council head Fernando de Guzman.
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) veterinarian Dr. Samantha Licudine said the 2.2-meter adult female dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) had a tear near its right fin, which “could have been caused by a predator.” She said the dolphin returned to the shore because it could not swim well. “It was listing and could not balance itself,” she said. Sun Star 

The fact that the dolphin was listing (turning to its side) can be indicative of balance problems – either in the hearing apparatus or brain/nervous system complications. The torn fin could have happened after the major event that disrupted the dolphin’s ability to stay upright.
In the video below, rescuers struggle with a pilot whale in Scotland that also had difficulty staying upright:

Although a half a world apart – one in the Philippines, the other in the British Isles – these stranding events have some things in common.
In both situations an usual variety of normally deep water species were involved, and both involved animals that looked battered and behaved unusually. (Please see “Panicked Whales Are Stranding in Area of Seismic Exploration” for information on the Great Britain strandings).
Both occurred in areas of intense exploration for oil. While the North Atlantic region has a longer history of offshore exploration, some areas of the South China Sea are just opening up. The Philippines is poised to exploit anticipated offshore sources of oil and gas, and is in a hurry to do so – the region is plagued with power shortages and has financial incentives to encourage foreign oil companies to perform seismic surveys of the seabeds.

Wikipedia Commons.
Wikipedia Commons.

In April, the 13-million-hectare continental shelf off the east coast of Luzon, near the provinces of Aurora and Isabela, was declared by the United Nations as part of Philippine territory. In 2008, the Philippines filed the claim in the area, which is an extinct volcanic ridge.
The area, which is also known as Benham Plateau, is a deepwater fishing ground for deepwater fish like bluefin tuna. It is also believed to be rich in natural gas and manganese nodules.
The Department of Energy (DOE) is looking to bid out portions of the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise in the eastern Luzon Seaboard for oil and gas exploration projects next year. But the DOE will first have to secure seismic survey data to encourage investors, an official said.
The DOE, along with other government agencies, is also fasttracking the permitting process for other petroleum projects as the Philippines is largely underexplored compared with its Southeast Asian neighbors. 

The exploration for off shore sources of oil and gas is disruptive to the marine environment, and while researchers struggle to define how to safely go about minimizing that impact, they need more data on the animals that strand. Perhaps, had the unlucky sperm whale that was attacked been reported to the authorities in time, it would not have had to suffer a brutal death and would have been properly euthanized.
An international stranding network will help on both accounts – it will provide more data to scientists, and help get stranded animals the help they need.
*International Dolphin and Whale Stranding Network development:

The effects of this sound can be profound on cetaceans and lead to blast type injuries or drastic alteration in dive behavior. Bleeding in the brain, ear canal, and melon (the forehead), is characteristic of whales and dolphins who beach themselves following exposure to loud sounds.
The continuous onslaught of sound can also make it difficult for family members to find other pod members in the din. This furthers the chance that pods will intermingle in assemblages not characteristic for them, or find themselves without a pod leader. There is even a chance that in attempting to escape the worst of the sound, dolphins and whales may flee to unfamiliar areas and find themselves lost