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The Nature Of Whales BY JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU
Swimming rapidly at the surface in opposite directions, two New Zealand orcas closely pass each other. Is this a form of communication, feeding behaviour or play? Find out more about the nature of these whales by watching Ocean Adventures in April 2009. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
Marine mammals have always fascinated me and are still very much a mystery to many of us. In spending time above and below water with these intelligent animals, one comes to appreciate the fact that they truly are our counterparts in the sea. From the excited chatter and playfulness of common dolphins riding the bow wave of our diving boat off Santa Barbara Channel, to the eerie songs of the humpbacks in Hawaii, to the gathering of killer whale super pods in the Pacific Northwest, marine mammals showcase many complex behaviours that rival our own, including communication, social structures, hunting skills, and play. Over the last five years, the Ocean Futures Society team has been fortunate to learn more about, to film, and to share information about whales on a global scale, through our PBS TV series, Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures. For example, we’ve been able to show
viewers the challenges encountered by gray whales on their long migration from protected Baja lagoons to summer feeding grounds off Alaska in The Gray Whale Obstacle Course. In America’s Underwater Treasures, we filmed as humpback whales performed a delicate ballet amidst a backdrop of liquid blue in the protected waters of the Hawaiian Humpback National Marine Sanctuary. Our April 2009 the PBS documentary, Sea Ghosts, will inform the public about NOAA’s decisive action in October 2008 to list Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species, which we hope is a turning point for increasing protection for these animals and their environment. The film addresses industrial development, pollution, oil and gas exploration, predation, disease and global warming, environmental hardships now facing the Cook Inlet population and other belugas inhabiting the Canadian Arctic.
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FUTURE OCEANS LEFT: Killer whales in New Zealand conduct carefully learned behaviours for handling and sharing stingrays, a potentially deadly form of prey. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society. RIGHT: Jean-Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society team encounter some of New Zealand’s orcas while filming for Ocean Adventures. The two-part episode will be broadcast on PBS in April. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
Our third season of Ocean Adventures also will showcase what we’ve learned about killer whales, or orca. Like belugas, these beloved toothed whales face mounting challenges to survive as their habitat and food resources shrink in an era of climate change. Fulfilling a lifelong goal to tell their story on film, I was struck by the realization that we human beings share so much in common with this species. Above and beyond the characteristics that define humans and whales as mammals - warm-blooded, air-breathing animals that give live birth and nurse their young - there are more striking similarities than first meet the eye. As with people, orcas have individual variations, depending on where they live. Some killer whales in Antarctica look gray and white, while those in New Zealand are clearly black and white. Whale pods living in British Columbia communicate in varied family dialects, sharing some common sounds, which link and identify groups that mingle and socialize at certain times of the year. It’s reminiscent of human language dialects, as different perhaps from each other as dialects in the Deep South and New England in the United States. Humans and orcas are opportunistic food consumers, they care for their young over several years, play, live in social groups, and they have developed complex communications and even cultures. Orca and humans have the ability to bear their first offspring between ages 12 and 16, and females experience menopause around the same chronological age. Both species typically live between 60 and 80 years. The greatest revelation about the nature of humans and orcas is the discovery that, like us, their culture is shared, learned and passed on to a new generation. Adults spend time mentoring the young to develop food procurement skills that are specific to prey in their geographic habitat. Our film illustrates how Antarctic whales work together during a seal hunting ‘lesson’. Adults and juveniles work in unison to create a rogue wave that will push a seal off an ice flow. It’s one of many examples of a coordinated hunt combined with a training session, for the benefit of their young.
Another film sequence teaches us about ways these animals relate to each other; they participate in food sharing possibly as a form of socialization, education, foraging and even recreation. Dr. Ingrid Visser, an orca researcher, introduces the OFS team to orcas of all ages catching stingrays. These whales engage in specific conduct carefully refined for handling edible prey that has the potential to kill. Mothers hunt for and with their young; adult males catch, then share rays with sub-adult and juvenile males. Some have better hunting skills than others. This is learned behaviour, honed by repetitive training sessions with seasoned elders, which takes years and is critical to catching this armed and potentially dangerous meal. Hunting methods vary with the underwater terrain. Some engage in high-speed chases through sandy flats to snatch rays on the run. Hiding rays, buried in sand, are found, flipped over and rendered helpless, then abandoned for a time to be eaten later. Others investigate the nooks and crannies of the rocky reef; these specialists carefully avoid the poisonous barb, deftly plucking rays out of the reef by the tail. Is this feeding behaviour merely for sustenance, or does it represent a ritual, a way to communicate, or a form of play? OFS is dedicated to bringing you information and films that reveal possible answers to many questions about the nature of whales, animals that so closely resemble us. We are dedicated to the goal of instilling in our audience a sense of wonder and appreciation that, we hope, leads to positive action to save these vunerable species.
RIGHT: An orca, or killer whale, navigates food-rich waters near Port Hardy, British Columbia. Ocean Futures Society is dedicated to the goal of instilling in its audience a sense of wonder and appreciation that leads to positive action to save this vulnerable species. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society. BELOW: Our film on orcas will show TV viewers how much human beings share in common with this species. Here, a pod feeds and socializes in waters off British Columbia. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.
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