Stories tagged sperm whales

Mar
14
2011

Those sassy whales
Those sassy whalesCourtesy Currier & Ives
Word on the street is that sperm whales may have individual names. I hope so, frankly, because I'm sick of calling them ... that.

Sperm whales, it seems, have calls that are unique to the region they live in. So whales in the Caribbean might have a different call than whales living in the South Pacific. But there are parts of sperm whale calls that are, on the surface, the same in whales around the world.

I say, "on the surface" not as some ocean-related pun, but because there's a part of the whale's call—five clicks at the beginning of a call—that seem to be totally unique to individual whales. All whales make the five clicks, but if you analyze the sound in detail, there are actually subtle variations in the sounds that are unique to the whale making them. Because it comes at the beginning of each phrase, or "coda string," and because the variations are perceptible from every direction (some whale calls sound different depending on how the listener is oriented to the caller), some scientists think that the clicks could represent the "names" of individual whales, who are identifying themselves as they call out.

Pretty neat, huh?

PS—"Pretty neat," but not completely neat, because I probably can't distinguish between the whales' clicks. Here, then, is a short list of names for any whales interested in adopting more standard monikers:
-Herman
-Squid Blood
-Crybaby
-Fudgie
-Moby II
-Gentle Jeff
-Spermy
-Winston

There are, like, dozens of other possible names. These are just the first to come to mind.

Jun
16
2010

A sperm whale: You will never get my precious iron feces! Never!
A sperm whale: You will never get my precious iron feces! Never!Courtesy Pacman
It would be a very special day indeed if a better story than this one popped up. But I wouldn’t ask for that. How could you want any more than this: whale poop fights global warming*.

Sperm whales are the particular focus of this study. The population of sperm whales in the Southern Ocean (the waters around Antarctica) is thought to be about 12,000. (There are more sperm whales in the world, but the study looked at Southern Ocean sperm whales.) Those 12,000 whales are thought to put about 200,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about the same amount that 40,000 passenger cars contribute each year. Destroy those polluting whales, right?

Wrong! See, it turns out that these sperm whales are also responsible for the removal of 400,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, making up for the amount they produce two times over. Their secret is this: they poop iron.

They don’t only poop iron, but sperm whales poop a lot of iron—each whale is thought to defecate about 50 metric tons of iron each year. That’s over 300 pounds a day! Obviously the whales aren’t pooping out solid iron ingots, though. It’s mixed in with their liquid feces. And that’s important.

The whales themselves don’t remove those 400,000 tons of CO2. They’re removed by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that, like plants, use sunlight and CO2 to build their bodies. And they feed on iron.

The whales have lots of iron in their diets, because of the large amounts of fish and squid they eat. So the iron-rich whale poop is an ideal nutrient for phytoplankton. When the phytoplankton dies, the carbon they contain falls to the bottom of the ocean instead of being released back into the atmosphere. Where more carbon is trapped than is released back into the atmosphere, it’s called a “carbon sink,” and that’s what whale poop and phytoplankton create in the Southern Ocean.

Other parts of the ocean may naturally contain more iron for phytoplankton, but the Southern Ocean is poor in the nutrient, and the microorganisms rely on an iron cycle that the whales apparently play a large part in. More whales, greater carbon sink. Fewer whales, less whale poop, more atmospheric carbon.

Coincidentally, the International Whaling Commission will be meeting next week, to discuss regulations on how many whales can be harvested from the oceans each year. It’s a complicated world, isn’t it?

*I thought about making the headline “Whale poop is ‘green’” but… yuck.

Sep
26
2008

Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.
Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.Courtesy sarae
Oh, Fergie, you’ve ruined my life. And music.

Anyway, New Zealand seems to be a little grosser these days. Several huge, greasy “lumps” have been found on the shores of the North Island in the last week, leaving locals confused, disgusted, and hopeful that a fortune in whale puke is right around the corner. (This may be the default feeling for kiwis, but I don’t follow the news there enough to say for sure.)

The 1000-pound lumps are whitish, lard-like, and a little smelly. The dogs of the beachcombers who first discovered the objects were reportedly reluctant to touch or eat the material, which is a strange thing for a dog that has found something on the beach.

Locals were quick to assume that the lumps could be precious ambergris, highly valuable whale vomit used in cosmetics, and were seen hacking chunks off of the mystery blobs. Their retirements, they reckoned, would be full of featherbeds and yams. (Again, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what New Zealanders are into.)

Ambergris’ name comes from the French for “grey amber” (as opposed to “brown amber,” fossilized tree sap), and is in fact, for those of you behind on your cetology, sperm whale puke. Sperm whales, like the rest of us, love to puke. And it’s important that your average sperm whale gets a good puke in now and again to eject any sand or stones they might have taken in over the course of… you know, I don’t really understand sperm whales any more than New Zealanders. But somehow they get grit in them, and they regularly and easily hurl it out. It seems, however, that some materials, like the beaks of cuttlefish and squid, are particularly irritating to whale guts, and something different happens—a special puke. It’s not known if the ambrein (the fragrant main ingredient in ambergris) comes from the beaks themselves, or if the chemical comes from the whale’s digestive process acting on the offending materials, but eventually a big ball of pasty goo is formed inside the whale, ready to be puked out. The ambergris initially smells pretty foul, but after floating around for a while, and being hardened and broken down by sunlight, it becomes a very complex and valuable material. Depending on the quality, it can fetch up to $15,000 per kg from perfume makers, to be used as a high-quality fixative.

Giant squids come in, I like to think, as an appropriate source for this bizarre, valuable material. Sperm whales are, after all, the prime predators of the giant squid, and giant squid have awfully big, gut-irritating beaks. It’s a link I like to make.

Anyhow, a lot of New Zealanders were set on making their fortune with this so-called whale puke. Ambergris, however, is said to burn with a blue flame when lit, and give off a pleasant aroma. When the mystery material was subjected to this test “it just melted and really stank.” Ooh. Ouch.

After this revelation, guesses on the material compositions were downgraded from ambergris to lard or cheese—“possibly brie.” The lumps are, it should be noted, about the size and shape of 44-gallon drums, which should have been a tip-off. But whatever.