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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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The largest animal to ever exist is the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) an immense rorqual capable of growing to over 30 metres (100 ft) in length and 180 metric tons (200 tons) in mass.  Although science has made substantial progress in understanding these great leviathans, the whales still harbor many secrets.  However today’s post is not meant to be an overarching description of the giant mysterious creatures.

Image: National Geographic Channel ’s Kingdom of Blue Whale

Nor is this tiny post a comprehensive history. The blue whales have a story as big and long as they are, but, so far it has been a sad tale. Once their population numbered in the hundreds of thousands, however steel boats, exploding harpoons, and humankind’s inexorable appetite quickly winnowed them down to a few hundred in the 1970s. Today the blue whale population is estimated to number one percent of what it once was—and, although the population is slowly growing, the blue whales face competition for food (krill is industrially harvested as food for fish farms), changing global ocean currents, and death or serious bodily injury from shipping. A big container ship can kill a blue whale like an SUV crushing a toddler.

To sustain their immense bulk, blue whales must eat a prodigious amount of krill. A hungry adult whale can eat up to forty million of the tiny crustaceans per day (along with whatever copepods, squid, and fish are accidentally caught up along with the krill).  The whales follow the huge pink underwater clouds of krill as they drift and twist through the oceans and thus circumstance (or crustacean whim) occasionally puts the blue giants in proximity to humans. When this happens the whales are a source of great wonder, but they are also in terrible danger from shipping.

Blue Whale Feeding on Krill Near the Surface (Barbara Howard, Acrylic on Canvas)

This is what is happening right now off Long Beach, California (the port complex of Los Angeles) which is the busiest port in the United States. The largest concentration of blue whales along the North America coast has gathered outside the port along the continental divide in order to hunt for krill.  Marine biologists have been monitoring the whales with suction-mounted radio trackers which fall off after one day.  Not only can the biologists radio warnings to ships coming close to the blue whales, they are also able to analyze the cetaceans’ behavior in order to better prevent accidents.

On October 7th, The LA Times reported that, “An 80-foot whale whose tag was scooped from the ocean Tuesday is a regular visitor that has been in the area for about a month. When researchers tagged the same whale a week before, they downloaded data that revealed a typical behavior pattern. The animal spent most of the day just outside the port, diving as deep as 1,000 feet. After dark, it stayed near the surface, perhaps to rest, and swam to the Santa Monica Bay.”

Lingering near the surface of the water beside the country’s busiest port after dark is dangerous behavior even for an 80 foot sea monster! Listen whales, everybody loves all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets (and everybody really loves to see blue whales) but you guys need to get out of LA. Take a clue from the fate of all the innocent teens hoping to break into the movie industry and move along before you get hurt.   Blue whales can live to be 110 years old if they aren’t run over by ships filled with plastic crap from China!

Of course if you don’t think the whales will listen to my blog, it might be worth contacting your political leaders and asking for more comprehensive protection for ocean life.

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