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Omura's whale or the dwarf fin whale (Balaenoptera omurai)

Omura’s whale or the dwarf fin whale (Balaenoptera omurai)

At the end of last month (October 2015), marine researchers in the Indian Ocean captured the first ever moving images of Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) a “dwarf” rorqual about which very little is known.  I put “dwarf” in quotation marks because Omura’s whale is still a rorqual, a family which includes the largest animals to have ever lived. Adult Omura’s whales range in length from 9.6 to 11.5 meters (31.5 to 37.7 feet)—not exactly a miniature animal.

The whale is mysterious because it is rare.  The specimens which were observed (or killed) were thought to be a small subspecies of Bryde’s whale.  Only in 2003 did Japanese cetologists demonstrate incontrovertibly that the whale was a separate species (largely through genetic evidence preserved from specimens taken in infamous hunts/research expeditions).

An Omura's whale underwater lunge feeding (photo by  Cerchio et al. 2015, Royal Society Open Science)

An Omura’s whale underwater lunge feeding (photo by Cerchio et al. 2015, Royal Society Open Science)

Insomuch as we know anything about it, the Omura’s whale (which is named in honor of a famous Japanese whale scientist) is like other rorquals.  It is a huge pelagic filter feeder which captures plankton or small fish and invertebrates in its great baleen mouth and strains the water out.  It superficially resembles Bryde’s whale, however DNA reveals that it is an early offshoot from the rorqual lineage (its skeleton also differs greatly from Bryde’s whale)

We didn’t even know this was a species until 12 years ago—which illustrates how vast and unknown our own oceans still are. The Omura’s whales in the video/film were spotted in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar.  Hopefully they are not as isolated as they seem and the oceans will continue to be graced by this mysterious creature far into the future.

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This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture.  There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema.  The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre.   In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film.  This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.

Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production.   It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris).  Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain.  So, without further ado, here it is:

Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality.  The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle.   Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.

Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature.  Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.

The illusionist and filmmaker, George Méliès (who looks exactly like one imagines)

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