WHALES ARE COOL
May 27, 2012
beluga whale was born in Atlanta last week. This reminded me of an earlier
column where I wrote of being mesmerized as I watched two of these ghostlike
leviathans from only a few feet away. Not only can beluga whales turn
their heads and look at you, but they do so with near-human facial expressions
and big, imploring eyes.
this to be the part where I tell you that I was wearing an Arctic drysuit
and peering at them through my face mask while I checked my scuba tank
and deftly avoided icebergs. Or that I was peering out the window of
a room-temperature submersible 100 feet deep off the coast of Iceland.
Actually, I was watching these gentle giants as they swam around the
Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta while I sipped a glass of wine during a
conference. Little did I know then that I was watching the future mother
of the baby born last week.
whales that reach lengths of 13 feet (females) to 18 feet (males), belugas
live in Arctic waters so cold that a person falling overboard might
survive two minutes. Belugas have no dorsal fin and their side flippers
are relatively small. The biological explanation is that such bodily
extensions result in heat loss, not ideal for a creature that spends
its lifetime swimming in icy water. Their torpedo shape enhances their
supple and graceful body movement, which adds to their charisma.
of a beluga has an eerily personable look, and the ones in the aquarium
were clearly interested in the strange creatures that were looking at
them from the other side of the glass. In fact, one female returned
again and again to stare at me as she glided past in slow motion, seemingly
as fascinated with me as I was with her. Every time she passed my face
she would close her eyes. Being coy, I suppose. Their agility is remarkable
as they effortlessly roll over and swim upside down, giving a rather
come-hither look (except when they close their eyes), as if they would
really like for you to join them.
relative to beluga whales is believed to be the narwhal, a strange enough
creature in its own right. Narwhals are a sort of marine unicorn of
the Arctic Ocean, with a protruding tusk (up to nine feet long!) that
develops from the single, left upper jaw tooth in males. Clearly, a
narwhal can never be as charming as a beluga.
whales are believed to live more than 30 years. After a pregnancy of
more than a year, mothers give birth to babies that are about five feet
long and weigh approximately 175 pounds. When they assume their full
adult coloration of pure snow white, they become one of the most enchanting
creatures of the Arctic seas. A pod often consists of 20 or more, and
groups of more than a thousand have been reported in the past. But like
so many other whales, belugas have declined in numbers in most regions.
They are still hunted and killed, and are threatened by commercial operations
of various kinds.
I do not
begrudge killer whales and polar bears their share of beluga whales.
Killer whales and polar bears are supposed to eat them, in the same
way that belugas eat their natural prey, fish and squid. Nor do I have
a problem with indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions killing a beluga
here and there for subsistence. But to kill a beluga whale with an explosive
harpoon or a rifle merely for sport? I do have a problem with that behavior,
which seems to me very unsportsmanlike.
Currently, beluga whales are protected only in Cook Inlet in southern
Alaska, while debate continues about whether belugas should receive
greater protection as an endangered species. Let decision-makers spend
a few minutes watching a beluga whale and I think they would agree that
these engaging animals deserve all the protection we can give them.
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