Tag Archives: Blue whales

The (After) Life of a Whale

Over the last few weeks, a small town in Canada has lived in fear of exploding whales.

Seriously.

A Whale of an Explosion

At the end of April, a dead blue whale washed up on the shore of Trout River, Newfoundland.  Amid concerns it could be a shipping hazard if dragged out to see, locals were forced to leave the whale decomposing on the beach whilst local and federal authorities argued over who should deal with the remains.

Inside a blue whaleThe carcass then proceeded to expand to about twice its normal size due to bloating from methane gas, a normal by-product of decomposition.  Unfortunately, there is only so far a bloated blue whale can stretch, leaving local residents on stand-by for a pretty big bang.  Strange as it sounds this is a legitimate concern – last year a washed up sperm whale in the Faroe Islands exploded as a biologist attempted to dissect it (warning:  video not for the faint-hearted).

Eventually, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum headed over to dismantle and remove the blue whale – a feat which took them almost a week.

A Sight to See (and Smell…)

Whale carcasses aren’t that great in general, regardless of their explosive potential.  A few years ago in Scotland, I took my sister to see a washed up sperm whale at our local beach.  We arrived at the car park and started walking.  When we were 1km away, she sniffed a few times and asked “What’s that smell?”.  It only got worse.

Dead sperm whale - winner of Aberdeen's Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

Dead sperm whale – winner of Aberdeen’s Top Tourism Attraction 2009.

But despite this, hundreds of people came to see it.  The carpark was overflowing for days whilst people made the trek to see the spectacle because, dead or alive, it’s just not every day you see a sperm whale.  People brought their kids (who poked it), dogs (who rolled in it), and cameras to remember the experience.

So, given the high number of marine mammals out there, why aren’t we constantly assaulted by the stink of washed-up whales?  When they’re not washing up on our beaches and becoming a gruesome attraction, what happens to the remains of whales and other marine life?  The answer:  Whale Fall.

Whale Fall

Deep-sea zones are pretty special when it comes to food-chains.  A lack of light means no plant life, which is generally the foundation of most food webs.  Instead, the deep sea ecosystem consists mostly of scavengers, who are fed from above by a constant drizzle of organic particles and detritus known as ‘marine snow’.

But every so often, a really big particle falls in the form of a whale.  And when this happens, the whole community turns up for a feast.

Recently, a deep-sea graveyard was discovered off the coast of Angola by remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) conducting oil and gas exploration.  Consisting of a dead whale shark and four rays, this represented a surprisingly high concentration of deceased megafauna over a relativley small area.  Scientists are now using this footage to compare the species composition of scavengers on the shark and ray carcasses to the scavenger species present on whale falls.

Ecosystems within ecosystems.  A pretty cool example of how life goes on!

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Listening to the Sound of Success!

Two different projects came to fruition last week, neatly coming in time for my birthday!  Not so sure about the ageing part, but it was definitely good timing on the research outcomes!

From listening for dolphins…

Earlier this month I spent a morning out on the river with the ‘Destination WA‘ TV crew, filming a short segment about the Swan River dolphins.  We spent a lovely few hours out on the Swan River Trust boat Kwilana (Noongar for ‘dolphin’) whilst the team did interviews with myself, Delphine Chabanne (Murdoch University), Marnie Giroud (SRT), and Jennie Hunt (Dolphin Watch).

It was really interesting to see ‘behind the scenes’ for the filming process, especially given the great camaraderie of the TV crew!

… to interpreting blue whales!

Non-song vocalisations of pygmy blue whalesAnother project success last week was finding out that our paper “Non-song vocalizations of pygmy blue whales in Geographe Bay, Western Australia ” had been published online by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America!  This study used simultaneous land-based visual observations and underwater acoustic recordings to examine the communication of pygmy blue whales.

These animals are famed for their songs, made up of repeated patterns of notes.  But in this study, we focused on the non-song sounds produced by pygmy blue whales and found six different vocalisations – five of which had never been described for this population before!  Hopefully this will help inform passive-acoustic monitoring for the species.

And as for ‘Older and Wiser’?

Well, that remains to be seen!  But entering 28 as a PhD Student, TV Star, and three-times Published Scientific Author isn’t a bad way to start 😉

The Importance of Attending Conferences

In December 2013, the Society for Marine Mammalogy will be holding its biennial conference on the biology of marine mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand.  Last Friday, I was notified that I am lucky enough to be presenting at the conference!  But why are conferences such a big deal?

What is the SMM conference?

The Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) biennial conference is a gathering of marine mammal scientists from around the world, with the goal of enhancing collaboration, sharing ideas, and improving the quality of research on marine mammals.  Every SMM conference has a fantastic turnout, with hundreds of scientists in attendance.  This year promises to be no different, with over 1000 abstracts for talks and posters being submitted.  Unfortunately, about 20% of these were rejected.  But 200 talks and 400 posters have been accepted for the event.

What will I be presenting?

Pygmy blue whale and vessel; Geographe Bay, Western Australia

Pygmy blue whale and vessel (Geographe Bay, Western Australia) – how close is too close?

I will be presenting a poster based on work by myself and colleagues at the Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST).  Check out my Projects page for more information on this group.  The poster will document the responses of pygmy blue whales to vessel traffic during their migration through Geographe Bay, Western Australia.  Understanding the impacts of anthropogenic activities on marine fauna has become of increasing concern as the human population continues to expand its activities in the marine environment.  The SMM conference will be an excellent opportunity to share our research findings with the scientific community.

What’s the point of conferences?

Of course, conferences aren’t just a way of spreading the word about your own work – they’re also a great chance to hear about developments in your field and keep up-to-date with recent research.  The best part is that if you have questions or would like to know more about any particular topic, the researchers are right there to ask!  Conferences are great networking opportunities, whether you’re a student looking for a job, a professor looking for students, or a researcher interested in finding collaborators for a particular project.  Since presentations are often discussing work at varying stages (from preliminary findings through to recently published), it is also a good chance to get some informal peer-feedback.  Plus, you often get to travel to pretty cool places!

But for me the best thing about academic conferences is this:  inspiration.  Being surrounded by passionate people, new ideas, recent discoveries…  It all acts as a massive source of motivation and encouragement to continue in what can sometimes be a difficult field.  Everyone needs a pick-me-up sometimes, and I find the buzz of conferences invigorating.

So bring on New Zealand!