Mama’s Boys

I was going to call this post “Killer Whales are Killer Wailers” and talk about their systems of hunting but then I just couldn’t do it. But real quick, these whales (southern residents) do make a lot of noise while hunting because they find and catch fish with sound (fish aren’t good listeners apparently, never learned that skill in Kindergarten). Mammal-eating whales are silent as they hunt, potentially coordinating using their saddle patches and eye spots as visual clues to their pod-mates’ movements.

Okay, but back to the title of the post: southern residents are organized roughly along matrilineal lines. That means that most groups are composed of mothers and their offspring, whether male or female. It’s fascinating listening to the researchers here, because according to them, the big males with their tall dorsal fins and wide pectorals are fairly useless at feeding themselves. The older females keep them around and help them sate their bigger appetites, in the hopes that their sons will then procreate and pass the mothers’ genes on indirectly. Sort of like lions? Sort of like humans?

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Males whose mothers have died are sometimes taken on by other groups (or tag along, I’m not sure which). We’re hoping for the successful reattachment of a few of the big males to new groups of females, because there aren’t too many mature males left. They eat more, so when fish are scarce they’re the first ones to bite the metaphorical dust.

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Here’s Holly Fearnbach, one of the researchers I’m working with. She’s that tiny dot hanging out of the side of the helicopter, strapped in with a construction harness and taking aerial photos of the whales to determine, basically, how fat they are this year. (They told us we were looking good on the boat from above… with only a few snarky comments on our relative widths and potential “peanut-headed” status. A peanut-headed whale is unhappily skinny- they ought to be sleek and fat all down their bodies.)

Hopefully if we find evidence that the endangered Southern Residents are getting skinny, we might be able to convince interest groups to stop people from taking so much of their food source. Having watched the fishing boats seining for the past few days and hauling in nets of salmon, I’m not sure how they’d up the protection on Chinooks without impacting fishermen to the point of bankruptcy- I don’t understand how they could exclude the big (and tasty) fish while still catching enough of the small ones to make it worth their while. It’s not an easy problem, but it would be better to start fighting for the whales’ food now…

Also, helicopters are neat.

Finally for today, I know some of you have been reading along in the hopes of super cool leaping whale shots- I don’t blame you. But because I’m on a boat that is permitted to approach the whales pretty much as close as we need to get, it would be unchivalrous of me to use photos taken within the 200m permitted range for my own personal amusement and profit (aka this blog and my facebook page). I definitely super don’t want to get anyone in trouble or mess up anyone’s research or step on any toes, so all the whale photos I post on this blog will be fairly far away. THAT BEING SAID, some of my photos may go up on the Center for Whale Research’s website, http://www.whaleresearch.com. I highly recommend it- the people at the Center are constantly updating with whale encounters, awesome whale photos, and pages of ID guides and info on these animals. I personally think a membership to the website is worthwhile as well, and I can guarantee the proceeds from the memberships are well-used here.

I’m going to go try to photo-ID some more whale photos now. It’s getting slightly easier, but I’m nowhere near good enough to figure them out on the water. I’ve picked a few favorites that I’ll hopefully be able to spot next time we go out- stay posted for their stories!

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