By Zida Borcich
They are different from you and me. Really different. They are big. Unimaginably big. They travel a ten-thousand-mile migration route every year. They are mammals. And they live, play, and breed in the ocean.
The evolution of these magical creatures that have inhabited the planet for millions of years is a mystery and a marvel and a miracle. In this seminal moment of worldwide reorganization, dread, confusion, our story this month carries a subtext of hope and wonder, and a plea for healing.
As a whale watcher, I have to admit I’m a flop. All these years of living on the coast, and I’ve only spied a few random spouts as I tromped along the headlands, or peered furtively out the windows of my car as I drove within spitting distance of the shoreline, hoping for the nearly impossible benediction of spotting some whale-ish event. This week, I learned the secret of consistent sightings: lawn chairs.
On every “good” day (mostly clear, not raining, decent visibility), Gualala residents Scott and Theresa Mercer can be found sitting on the headlands along the Mendocino coast in lawn chairs looking out at the sea. Seven days a week, weather permitting, from five to seven hours a day, the two scientists sit, and they peer through high-powered binoculars, and they count passing whales’ spouts, backs, breaches, and babies, looking for changes in migration patterns. For gray whales, in November, December, and January, they track southbound travelers on their way to breed and give birth in the warm waters of Baja, Mexico, and from February to June, they watch the parade going back north to their home in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, a little longer on the way back because babies have been born during their frolicsome time down south.
In other months, the Mercers are there too, unless they are back at their other home in Maine. It seems spotting whales never loses its excitement, no matter how long you do it, nor how long you may have to wait. I went out with them one glittering day to see how it’s done by experts, and now I know the secret and you do too: Sitting down, not walking along, is the key. You have to sit, you have to wait, you have to be patient and kind of just relax into it. Part of my problem has always been that I fiddle with my eagerness, making it an exercise not to reach out with my eyes, anticipating a breaching leviathan, but instead allowing the scene to enter my vision with whatever it actually contains. But it never works. No matter how much my intention is not to yearn, I yearn.
But the Mercers…there they are in the peaceful fullness of their lifetime of education and dedication, identifying what kinds of whales they are seeing by the shape of their flukes, by how near or far they are from shore, even by the shape of their spouts (grays’ are heart-shaped on windless days), and recording every detail. They spot grays, but also blues, humpbacks and pin whales sometimes. After their time outside, they go back home and input the information they gather into the meticulous database they have built over the last seven years, which they then share and compare with the next nearest whale spotters from the American Cetacean Society, ACS-LA Chapter, in Palos Verdes, Southern California, and on their Facebook page.
Of great concern to them is the finding that this year’s southbound migration had the lowest count in many, many years. This was the conclusion of both the Mercers and the Palos Verdes group, which has an army of volunteers who’ve been counting, in two-hour shifts, rain or shine, light or dark) for thirty-six years. They also share information and collaborate with the National Marine Fisheries and with Oregon State University Cascadia Research, which works with marine animals. What would be the reason for this sparse population of migrating grays? The estimated population last year went from twenty thousand to twenty-seven thousand individuals, so there could be more whales competing for food. They conjecture that another possibility might be that the number of “unusual mortality events” (UME), (the number of stranded animals that wash up on the shores), was five times greater than usual. Two hundred, fourteen gray whales washed onto west coast beaches last year, which NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) estimates is barely 10 percent of the actual number of animals that suffer ship strikes or other calamities and sink to the bottom unobserved. Observers noted extremely emaciated animals passing south this year, surmising that the changing temperatures of the ocean due to climate change, shifts in where and how much food is available, and, because much of the gray whales’ diet comes from the algae that grows on the underside of three-million-year-old ice in the Arctic Sea, which drops to the ocean floor (why Noyo Center for Marine Science educator Tanya Smart refers to grays as “bottom feeding scum suckers”), melting ice caps could well have something to do with the massive die-off. There are many factors linked with these strandings, such as illness, starvation, ship strikes, and human technologies such as naval sonar and seismic air guns used in oil exploration, which have been shown to confuse whales’ navigation abilities. Whatever the reasons, this number of stranded and dead whales is of great concern. A team from NOAA was in the Arctic last summer. Usually, whales leave the Arctic in September, but they were observed no heading out until October. And they left some of their traditional feeding areas to venture out further, deeper dives necessitating harder work.
Whales belong to a grouping of animals called cetaceans, which includes whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Whales are divided into two sub-groups: baleen (Mysticeti) whales and toothed (Odontoceti) whales, which are about as different from each other as rhinoceroses and octopuses (well, not quite that different). Inside their massive jaws, the seventy-six varieties of toothed whales—orcas and sperm whales, for instance—sport what you would expect: big, sharp teeth, and lots of them, and they actively hunt for their food. Baleen whales, which include gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales—fourteen species in all—instead have a comb-like structure made of keratin—the same substance our fingernails and hair are made of—which hang from their upper jaws. The baleen whale dives to the bottom and scoops up great mouthfuls of mud along with those yummy critters that live in the mud, then strains the whole jumble out through the baleen by force of its gigantic tongue, leaving just the tasty tidbits to be swallowed through its little throat (which is only about the size of a grapefruit). You would not find Jonah living inside a baleen whale, just to be clear; he would not have made it through the tiny opening to the esophagus. During a lull in the whale-y pageant, I sang one verse from George and Ira Gershwin’s song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from the Gershwins’ opera, Porgy and Bess:
Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale.
Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale.
Dat man made his home in dat fish’s abdomen.
Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale.
Hilarious…and inaccurate on several counts.
Incidentally, a gray whale’s tongue weighs between two and three thousand pounds (one to 1.7 tons). A blue whale’s tongue can weigh fifty-four hundred pounds (2.7 tons). Blue whales feast on krill; their stomachs can hold twenty-two hundred pounds of the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans at a time. They require almost nine thousand pounds of the tiny creatures a day or around forty million krill daily during the summer feeding season. And everybody knows that what goes in, must come out. There are entire ecosystems that center on whale poop, which plays a significant role in the ecology of the oceans, as fertilizer for phytoplankton, for one thing, the basis of much ocean life. Whales, again according to Wikipedia, “have been referred to as ‘marine ecosystem engineers.’ Nitrogen released by cetacean species and iron chelate is a significant benefit to the marine food chain in addition to sequestering carbon for long periods of time.”
The beautiful day I joined Theresa and Scott in Point Arena, the waves were trivial, it wasn’t very cold, and the sky was remarkably blue. Although I was ostensibly conducting an interview, the scene itself seemed to infiltrate the conversation, which lolled about sort of like a whale slowly rolling over—meditative, desultory, yet important—nothing hurried—the long spaces of no-talk-just-looking carried zero feeling of disquiet. Soon, the first spouts appeared far to the south of the Point Arena Lighthouse, where the two scientists most often park themselves. Whales swim about five miles an hour—not going full-blast—on the return migration because they have mostly not eaten anything at all since they left the Arctic Ocean months earlier and they need to conserve their energy for this second leg of their ten- to twelve-thousand-mile round trip, the longest migration route of any animals in the world. The pace is slower too because many females are pregnant and others are caring for newborn calves, so they have to stop and nurse along the way. Pregnant cows lead the southward trip, and those with newborn calves often stay longer in Baja to give their babies a chance to put on enough blubber to withstand the long trip in cold water on the way back north. Grays travel in loose groups, and as the leisurely procession moves into an imaginary “cone” of sight from where the watchers sit, their numbers can be entered into the day’s log. This assures accurate counting. Scott mentioned that unlike other species of whales that travel in pods, grays like to mosey along on their own, except, of course, when a calf is sticking close to its mom. They will team up in pairs or three or more occasionally, but quickly drift to their preferred solitude. By contrast, toothed whales, the Mercers told me, have well-established pods and may stay in the same pod their whole life.
Want some astonishing statistics? Pregnant cows, when faced with a shortage of nutrition, will abort the fetus. And females that are not pregnant, if they aren’t nutritionally fit, will not conceive. Gray whale calves nurse from two slits in the mother’s abdomen for about six months, the mother providing up to fifty gallons of milk, which contains 53 percent fat, each day. Blue whales nurse for five to seven months, during which time they put on thirty-eight thousand pounds. To be more hydrodynamic, the mother’s nipples are inverted at the mammary gland until the hungry baby starts to nudge her, at which point the nipple extrudes and begins to shoot out milk. A newborn calf weighs around an average of two thousand to twenty-five hundred pounds and is about fifteen to sixteen and a half feet long. Because whales don’t have lips, they can’t really suckle the milk. Instead it’s almost injected into the baby’s mouth. Whale’s racy mating habits involve several individuals from both genders and multiple partners, with a lot of splashing and galumphing about. A male penis is about seven feet long and is bright pink.
Whales are different from you and me.
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, whales are different from you and me. You may have noticed. There is hardly a thing that appears similar in us, and yet we all belong to the class mammalia. That means we are warm blooded, have live births, have hair (yep, whale embryos are covered in fine hair, and when fully grown, adults have sparse hairs over their mottled gray bodies). Mammals nurse our babies with milk that’s produced in our own bodies and breathe air. It’s just that whales, whose noses (now called blow holes), over eons, have migrated to the tops of their heads, and even have little vestigial hip bones left over from the days when their ancestors ran around on land, seem to break all the rules of what we think of as mammalian norms.
For one thing, they are big. I mean, there is hardly a way we can understand how big they really are. You can gaze up at the magnificent articulated Orca skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the Noyo Center for Marine Science, on Main Street in Fort Bragg, and just try to imagine it with those splendid bones filled and covered with ten or twelve thousands pounds of organs, flesh, and blubber. It’s very big. But it’s like a flea compared to the blue whale that washed up on our shores after being fatally struck by a ship’s propeller in 2009. Blue whales are said to be the biggest animals the Earth has ever known. Blues can grow to over one hundred feet long and weigh in at two hundred tons (four hundred thousand pounds). “Our” blue (more on this later), which local people “turned from a tragedy to an opportunity,” was about seventy-three feet long. It’s unimaginable, unless you get right up next to one, and even then the sheer giganticness of them strains the brain cells. But it’s not just their massiveness that’s outsized. A right whale’s brain is about six times the size of a human brain, and animals don’t evolve big brains just to lug them around. Are they six times as intelligent as humans? We can only guess. More on size, from Wikipedia: “About a hundred people can fit in a blue whale’s mouth. A blue whale’s heart is the size of a car, its eye is the size of a basketball, and a small child could swim through its arteries. The spray from a blue whale’s blowhole is almost as tall as a three-story building (30 feet, or 9 meters, high). Seventeen to twenty-one elephants (the biggest land animal) could fit inside a blue whale.” If a blue whale could walk down Fifth Avenue on its fluke, it would be as tall as a ten-story building. Big.
WHERE DID WHALES COME FROM?
Paleontologists posit that whales evolved over fifty million years ago, and that their ancestors lived on land. The hippopotamus, which likely evolved from “only” fifteen million years ago, is the closest living relative of whales, but it’s not an ancestor of whales—more like an offshoot from the family tree. About forty-seven million years ago, one four-legged whale forebear called Pakicetus (fossils were found near Pakistan) roamed in semi-aquatic regions. Fossil remains of this early ancestor indicate that it looked more like a wolf than a whale, but an important clue to its relationship to whales comes from scientists’ study of its skull, which, particularly in the ear region, is surrounded by a bony wall — strongly resembling those of living whales, which are unlike those of any other mammal. This is the same structure in hippos that reveals their relationship to whales.
Thanks to a wealth of intermediate fossils that have been uncovered over the past several decades, scientific detectives have been able to piece together the complex evolutionary turns and twists that led to the whales we know and love today, tracing how over time evolution selected for traits that helped usher them into their aquatic lifestyle. How is it possible for scientists to collage these small clues together into such a cohesive story? An article from Paleontology World magazine, March 5, 2017, describes how scientists work, through seemingly insignificant bits of evidence, to establish their theories: Animals are what they eat and drink, and saltwater and freshwater have different ratios of oxygen isotopes. This means that we can learn about what sort of water an animal drank by studying the isotopes that were incorporated into its bones and teeth as it grew. The isotopes show that Ambulocetus [another whale ancestor that lived around forty-six million years ago, which began to look more like an aquatic being, with shorter forelegs, fingers, a long, powerful tale, a fat pad in the jaw for hearing, and hind legs designed for swimming, with webbed toes.] likely drank both saltwater and freshwater, which fits perfectly with the idea that these animals lived in estuaries or bays between freshwater and the open ocean.
“Whales that evolved after Ambulocetus (Kutchicetus, etc.) show even higher levels of saltwater oxygen isotopes, indicating that they lived in nearshore marine habitats and were able to drink saltwater as today’s whales can. These animals evolved nostrils positioned further and further back along the snout. This trend has continued into living whales, which have a “blowhole” (nostrils) located on top of the head above the eyes.” Gray whales have two nostrils at the top of the head, and toothed whales have evolved a single nostril.
Around four hundred and fourteen million years ago, sometime in the late Silurian period of geologic time, aquatic faunae began creeping onto shore, which, it can be inferred, followed plants’ evolution and establishing as a food source on land. This quote from Dr. Jane Gray, a biologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, in a 1990 New York Times story serves to put these timelines into perspective: “I would say that once you had a food source, animals followed on land fairly soon. The simplest forms of single-cell organisms originated about 3.8 billion years ago, less than a billion years after Earth was formed. The proliferation of fossils five hundred and ninety million years ago indicates the initial stages of more complex life forms then. After plants and arthropods adapted to land, some fish left the water and established a beachhead for vertebrates more than three hundred million years ago, beginning as amphibians, then as reptiles, and eventually as mammals.” Even the most erudite scientists find no explanation for the reversal of this original evolutionary direction, as inexorable evolutionary adaptations turned terrestrial beasts back into aquatic ones.
What were the adaptations needed to accomplish this inexplicable turnabout? An indication of whales’ evolutionary heritage can be seen in the way they move through water. Instead of fishily wiggling from side to side swishing a vertical tail, because they evolved from land mammals, whales’ vertebrae force them to undulate up and down, from front to fluke and back, and the flukes are horizontal rather than vertical, like fishes’ tails. The greatest feat remains, as air breathing mammals, the mechanism they evolved for surviving in aquatic habitat. For dives that can last, in certain species, for up to ninety minutes, how oxygen is used is crucial. This quote from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation website describes how whales breathe: The most important way to get oxygen for these animals is not through taking large breaths of air, but how they store oxygen molecules within their bodies. Oxygen is stored and transported around your body in your red blood cells in a protein called hemoglobin. Whales have twice the amount of hemoglobin in their blood then we do. So while your blood is 30 percent hemoglobin, a whale’s blood is 60 percent hemoglobin – allowing them to store twice as much oxygen for long dives. In addition to more hemoglobin, whales’ bodies have a higher percentage of blood – allowing even more oxygen storage. Blood takes up 10-20 percent of a whale’s body volume, while our blood volume to body ratio is only around 7%.We also store oxygen directly in our muscle tissue in a protein called myoglobin. Whales’ myoglobin concentrations in their muscle are up to 30 percent higher than their terrestrial relatives. This molecule is distributed throughout the muscles in the body and holds up to 35 percent of whales’ oxygen stores. This is crucial as it’s important for oxygen to not only last as long as possible, but also be constantly supplied to the brain while they are under water.
In order to conserve this precious oxygen, whales can do several things – one being that they have conscious control over their heart rate and can greatly reduce their cardiac output by slowing down their heart rate by over half. This reduces blood flow to non-essential organs (like skin and organs related to digestion) and some muscles because they have their own blood supply in the myoglobin. This is called ischemia. Additionally, blood pathways are shunted (or blocked) to certain tissues that are less important to the animal during dives—such as the stomach, while others sustain a steady blood flow– such as the brain.
Before commercial whaling commenced, the seas were teeming with whales. Tanya Smart summarizes what came after harpoons started zinging into the great beasts, which were hunted and killed in the millions: “Gray whales were hunted for centuries by various native cultures of Asia and North America. Commercial whaling began to seriously deplete the population in the nineteenth century. North American and European whalers discovered easy hunting in the Baja lagoons and near-shore migration habits of the Gray whale.” There were fifteen shore processing and hunting stations from Northern California to Baja that operated for forty-five years, and by 1890 the population was so decimated that whaling was no longer lucrative. Tanya Smart goes on, “Recovery of the population and development of steam and diesel powered boats allowed renewed hunting in the early 1900’s. In 1946, Gray whales were declared a depleted and endangered species. Various laws such as the Endangered Species Act of 1964 afforded some protection, though other countries hunted within sight of the California coast until the US territorial limit was increased to two hundred miles offshore.” In 1972, commercial whaling was finally banned by the United Nations and the United States. Once restrictions were in place, the same coastal migration and winter gathering in Baja lagoons that led to near extinction brought about the successful recovery of grays in some areas. Today, eighteen thousand to twenty-three thousand gray whales migrate, feed, and have their young in the Eastern Pacific, and grays have been removed from the Endangered Species list since 1994. Sadly, two other types of whales were not so lucky. The North Atlantic population of gray whales is now extinct and the Western North Pacific population is seriously endangered, with only a hundred to two hundred animals remaining.
Scott Mercer had never even seen a sea otter before he read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that sparked his interest in marine mammals, to the extent that he signed on to work on a whale feeding study for a student project at San Francisco State. He’s been at it ever since, even quoting Lou Reed’s 1966 seminal song “Heroin,” recorded by The Velvet Underground to describe how hooked he is: “She’s my wife; she’s my life.” After finishing school, he moved back east and started a whale watch company in Maine, where there was a big feeding ground. There was a great cry from whaling companies when whaling was restricted in the ‘70s, the complaint being it would ruin the fishing economy, but communities have since learned that whales are beloved by almost everyone, and the chance merely to see them close up is a gift many have been able to receive from people like Scott. Tourists are willing to pay for the privilege and the whale watching industry thrives, bringing in more money than the wholesale slaughter of nature’s magnificent beasts for their oil. Additionally, whales’ behavior has been changed, with moms bringing their newborns near to whale watching excursions to be petted. Whalers used to shoot the babies to lure the moms near, and understandably the fury of the mother cows ran riot, causing death and destruction to boatmen and boats. They were dubbed “Devilfish” for their maternal ferocity.
The beautiful, graceful, mysterious whales display nurturing behaviors, form friendships, innovate, grieve, play, sing, and cooperate with one another. What is second nature to them looks unspeakably brave and inexplicable to us. They are capable of complex communication through their beautiful, complicated whale songs that can be heard hundreds of miles away.
I asked Scott and Theresa what they would like to say to people who read this story. Theresa said, “Whales have been on the planet so long. My hope is that people will come to learn about the incredible things they do. I hope they will come to a place where they will want to protect the fragile whales.”
The ocean is sick and whales are letting us know that we must change the way we use it or the world will perish. Scott said, “People say, oh whales are whales and why should we be worrying about them? But whales are the great canaries in the coal mine. We know how the phytoplankton in the ocean absorbs a hundred million tons a day of carbon from the atmosphere, and with warming oceans phytoplankton doesn’t reproduce as well as in the cold water it evolved in. So, with less phytoplankton being produced, there’s less oxygen being produced. Phytoplankton is grazed on by hundreds of species of zooplankton, and that feeds fish and other ocean creatures, and some whales. Whales eat one to three tons a day, which produces whale poop, which provides fertilizer for plant plankton, which, again, produces the oxygen we breathe.” May the circle be unbroken, but it is broken, and we humans must commit to repairing the damage that’s been done to the habitat of these miraculous beasts, the habitat that is ours and all creatures’, large and practically invisible.