Tuesday, 1 October 2013


I've been spending a lot of time with the Chinese White Dolphins in the bay. My hope is that they will gradually accept me and I'll be able to get some photos and watch their underwater behavior. Although they are safe here I am reminded that whales are far from safe in the world's oceans.

 The White or Humpback Dolphin

Whales are among the most spectacular creatures on Earth and most 'enlightened cultures' have voted to protect them from unnecessary harm. In fact, science has clearly shown that many species are endangered or are on the brink of extinction. Laws have been passed and whales are protected; right?

Although some species are recovering, many whales are in as much danger today as they were a century ago during the days of whaling. Let’s have a look at the major threats faced by whales today.

Naval Defense

The U.S. Navy among other armed forces is experimenting with high power sonar that can detect the presence of submarines throughout the world’s oceans. These bursts of sound can reach 240 decibels (billions of times more powerful than the level that causes hearing damage in humans). During testing off the California coast, noise from one of the Navy's low-frequency sonar systems was detected across the full width of the northern Pacific Ocean.

Dolphins and whales are known to use their biosonar to locate fish, navigate, and communicate with each other. When the U.S. Navy began testing their high power sonar strange things started to happen.

Stranded Sperm Whale

The Navy’s most widely used sonar systems operate in the mid-frequency range. Evidence of the danger caused by these systems surfaced dramatically in 2000, when whales of four different species stranded themselves on beaches in the Bahamas.

In 2003, the U.S. Navy conducted sonar tests off the Coast of Washington. The whales in the area were monitored by biologist making underwater recordings. One pod of killer whales almost beached themselves in an effort to get away for the intense sound bursts made by the Navy’s sonar. By the Navy's own estimates, even after 500 kilometres, these sound bursts can retain an intensity of 140 decibels -- a hundred times more intense than the level known to affect the behavior of large whales.

A pod of Killer Whales
Several whales from this pod have since died at a young age. In other locations beached whales have suffered physical trauma, including bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues.

Pilot whales are very social animals and form close and lasting bonds with each other. In Florida, as mass stranding of pilot whales was observed. The whales were so weak they had to be supported to prevent drowning. There were no apparent lesions or reason for this large group of whales to beach themselves.

Stranded Pilot Whales

Was this a stranding due to the U.S. Navy’s testing of sonar in the area?

The beaked whale is a deep diving whale. It has been recorded at 1,999 metres in a dive lasting over 70 minutes. These deep diving whales use their biosonar for navigation and to locate food.

                                              A Beaked Whale                                                  

Beaked whales in the Bahamas stranded themselves in large numbers; again with no apparent reason. The U.S. Navy had conducted a sonar exercise in the immediate area prior to the strandings of this rare whale. Was this another coincidence?
The bowhead whale weighs in excess of 60 tonnes and is one of the biggest whales in the world. There are only about 350 bowhead whales left in a sub-population that migrates past Greenland for a short time during the summer months. 

Bowhead Whales

The whales produce sound frequencies between 50-300 hertz to locate masses of krill and to communicate between each other.

What would happen to this small group of bowheads if they were exposed to the Navy’s sonar exercises?  

Hunting of Whales

The I.W.C. (International Whaling Commission) was setup in 1946 to oversee the commercial harvesting of whales on a global basis.

Since the late 1970s, however, the I.W.C. has become dominated by governments that are largely opposed to the practice of commercial whaling. The result of this shift led to the eventual adoption of a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The moratorium has never been lifted and whale populations are slowly recovering. In 1994 the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary
was created to enhance protection into the future.

So has the whaling stopped? Not exactly.

Butchering a Bowhead Whale aboard a whaling ship

Let’s go through the ‘official’ list. Remember that other countries would like to resume whaling and many whales are killed and not reported.

Carried out by various Inuit groups, meat obtained from this whaling is commercially sold through shops and supermarkets
Allows natives of Bequia to catch up to four Humpback Whales per year using traditional hunting methods
Faroe Islands
Around 950 Long-finned Pilot Whales, some Northern Bottlenose Whale, and Atlantic White-sided Dolphin.
Catch around 175 whales per year, making them the third largest hunters in the world after Norway and Japan
Quota is set to 30 minke whales and nine Fin Whales
Lamalera and Lamakera, half of the catch is kept in the village; the rest is traded
Japan’s controversial scientific whaling program takes about 600 whales per year
Norwegian whalers have been allowed to hunt a quota of 1,052 Minke Whales a year. Catches are usually less
Permitted under IWC regulation to take up to 140 Gray Whales. The Soviet Union had been systematically underreporting. They caught 48,477 Humpback Whales rather than the 2,710 it officially reported (1948-73)
United States
Carried out by Alaska natives, takes around 50 Bowhead Whales a year
Permitted whaling kills about 3000 per year (8 per day)

Collisions and Fishing Gear

Ship’s propeller cuts
The World Wide Fund for Nature claims that 90% of all Northern Right whales being killed are from ship collisions. Behind collisions with ships, getting tangled in discarded fishing gear is the next biggest problem. The U.S. Government enacted legislation in 2007 to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale from fishing gear. This species is endangered with only 350 remaining.

Propeller cuts in a Right Whale