Impending Doom for Ocean Community

Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic Ocean

The United States Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has proposed and developed14 new offshore drilling leases for 2017 – 2022 which are located in the Gulf of Mexico and several coastal areas in the Mid and South Atlantic regions.
Most-U.S.-Atlantic-Coast-States-Choose-Renewables-over-Drilling
Proposed drilling areas taken from Offshore Energy Today, 2014

Offshore drilling refers to the extraction of oils and natural gas hundreds of feet deep from the sea bed through wells. Undoubtedly, offshore drilling is paramount in meeting our current demand for energy, contributing to a third of our total oil and gas extraction (Worldoceanreview, 2014).  This translates to affordable oil prices on the market, and delays the time until we run out of available reserves.

Photo credits: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-153348/This-map-depicts-the-location-of-the-Deepwater-Horizon-oil
Photo credits: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-153348/This-map-depicts-the-location-of-the-Deepwater-Horizon-oil

However, the accidents resulting from offshore drilling poses a high environmental risk to the marine biodiversity. In 2010, the world’s worst BP Deepwater Horizon Oil spill polluted 1000 miles of the coastline, and had caused the death of more than 8000 marine animals including turtles, birds and mammals (Paquette & Gutierrez, 2013). NOAA scientists reports an estimated leak of 5,000 – 6,000 barrels per day from the broken well, and engineers only managed to put the plug to the leak after 87 days (Graham, B. et. al., 2011).

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Photo credits: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13123036
A sea turtle soaked in crude oil. Photo credits: http://www.audubon.org/news/bp-deepwater-oil-spill-wildlife-update-sea-turtles
Photo credits: http://www.audubon.org/news/bp-deepwater-oil-spill-wildlife-update-sea-turtles

28 protected species of marine mammals that live in the Gulf include 6 that are acknowledged as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, they are sperm, sei, fin, blue, humpback and the North Atlantic right whales (onEarth, 2015).

A carcass of a sperm whale partially eaten by sharks, found in the aftermath of the oil spill disaster. Photo credits: http://www.desdemonadespair.net/2012/10/us-downplayed-effect-of-deepwater.html
A carcass of a sperm whale partially eaten by sharks, found in the aftermath of the oil spill disaster. Photo credits: http://www.desdemonadespair.net/2012/10/us-downplayed-effect-of-deepwater.html

Scientists and researches began to take blood and blubber samples from these marine mammals to assess the damage of the oil spill done. Traces of nickel and cadmium that can be found in crude oil (that had leaked out of the well) were found accumulated up to 5 times more in their blubber as compared to other sperm whales in other regions. In addition, of the total number of dolphins sampled in areas of high concentration of oil, 41% showed indications of inflammation, 22% had hypoglycaemia (glucose deficiency in the blood) and 19% had liver and biliary tract diseases(onEarth, 2015).These figures suggests that despite the fact that these dolphins had managed to pull through the initial phase of the oil spill, almost half of them have been affected, and further complications of these inflammations and diseases will ultimately affect the dolphins mortality rate.

The location of the new leases (highlighted in yellow in the first figure above) for the years 2017 – 2022 spell trouble for the already endangered marine species in the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. To make things even worse, the harmful toxins from the oil spill hinders with reproduction and the development of sperm whale calves (onEarth, 2015). Being an endangered species, the presence of new offshore drills in these areas increases and heightens the vulnerability of these animals with average gestation periods of 10-18 months (Whalefacts.org, 2015). This means we cannot afford more major oil spill accidents such as the BP Deepwater Oil Spill until sufficient time has passed for sensitive cetacean populations to grow and recover from just a single accident. But yet again, no one can predict when the next oil spill accident can happen, will we be ready to go through the horrors of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill again?

BP Deepwater Oil Spill Disaster. Photo credits: http://nypost.com/2014/10/27/bp-oil-spill-left-big-bathtub-ring-on-sea-floor/
BP Deepwater Oil Spill Disaster. Photo credits: http://nypost.com/2014/10/27/bp-oil-spill-left-big-bathtub-ring-on-sea-floor/

References:

Graham, B., Reilly, W. K., Beinecke, F., Boesch, D. F., Garcia, T. D., Murray, C. A., & Ulmer, F. (2011). Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling. Report to the President, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, Washington, DC (January 2011).

Offshore Energy Today. (2014). U.S. releases offshore drilling plan. Atlantic included.. Retrieved 26 September 2015, from http://www.offshoreenergytoday.com/u-s-releases-offshore-drilling-plan-atlantic-included/

onEarth,. (2015). The BP disaster isn’t over for the Gulf’s whales and dolphins. Retrieved 27 October 2015, from http://www.onearth.org/earthwire/gulf-disaster-toxins-marine-mammal-populations

Paquette, S., & Gutierrez, E. (2013). Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Air And Water Pollution Prevention And Control Engineering.

Whalefacts.org,. (2015). Whale Gestation Period. Retrieved 27 October 2015, from http://www.whalefacts.org/whale-gestation-period/

Worldoceanreview. (2014). Sating our energy hunger « World Ocean Review. Retrieved 26 September 2015, from http://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-3-overview/oil-and-gas/sating-our-energy-hunger/

Featured Image: http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2012/11/15/bp-remains-in-troubled-waters-over-oil-spill/

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Uses of Whale Parts – The Historic Tradition

In conjunction with last week’s post, I would like to explore the economical value of whales to man, since whaling first started in the 170os. This is because the economical value of whale parts which once stem from their oil and baleen plates, had led to the development of devices such as harpoons that are highly specialised to ensure the capture and killing of a whale. As time progressed, technological improvements develop in which alternatives are made available to replace the purpose of the whale parts once served – Kerosene replaced whale oil, while plastics replaced baleen plates (Coolantarctica.com, 2015).

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A cartoon drawing of the killing of a sperm whale. Photo credits: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/RhoWhal-fig-RhoWhalP006a.html

Uses of Whale Parts in the Past

Whale oil

Whale oil was used for a variety of purposes such as for lighting, lubrication in machinery, and also in the manufacturing of soaps, cosmetics and varnish. This oil is mainly found in the blubber layer of the whales, and for one particular species, the sperm whale, a special and highly prized oil is found in its head (Petroleumhistory.org, 2015).

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The anatomy of a Sperm Whale head. Photo credits: http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Whale/anatomy.html

The most highly prized oil is known as spermaceti oil, and is found in the case (shown in the figure above) and in the junk chamber. What makes spermaceti oil extremely valuable was its ability to produce a bright and clear flame, without producing excess smoke mainly due to its unique fat content. About 25-40 barrels of oil can be harvested from a single sperm whale alone; the spermaceti oil from the head contributes to 6 to 8 barrels of oil, whilst the rest of the oil derives from their 18-inch thick blubber (Petroleumhistory.org, 2015).

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The bar chart above shows the extent of recovery of the whales since protective measures such as the moratorium on whaling by the IWC and Endangered Species Protect Act in the US (Ballance, 2012). Photo credits: http://cetus.ucsd.edu/sio133/PDF/16%20-%20Whaling.pdf
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The graph above shows the number of catches for four species, the Blue whale, Fin whale, Sei whale and the Minke whale from 1910 – 1970 time period (Ballance, 2012). Photo credits: http://cetus.ucsd.edu/sio133/PDF/16%20-%20Whaling.pdf

The two diagrams are a visual representation of the impact of whaling activities on specific whale species. The important key milestones in history are listed below:

  • Late 1800s – Commercial whaling began, propelled with the invention of harpoons that are weapons highly specialised for whaling.
  • 1904 – Spike in whaling activities upon the discovery of a high population of whales in the Southern Ocean
  • 1946 – Establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)
  • 1974 – IWC proposed a precautionary New Management Procedure (NMP), but was unsuccessful as they had insufficient resources and information to be effective.
  • 1979 – The Indian Ocean was declared a whale sanctuary
  • 1986 – IWC implemented the moratorium on all commercial whaling, but Norway refused to compromise, and continued whaling activities, setting back whale populations by 100,000 (combined).
  • 1987 – Japan’s ICR (Institute of Cetacean Research) embarked on conducting scientific research – this was discussed in my previous post.
  • 1994 – Increased awareness of whaling globally alongside NGOs such as WWF that established a 50 million square km region in the Southern Ocean as another whale sanctuary.
Baleen Plates
baleen plates
Baleen plates. Photo credits: http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/wildlife/whales/whaling2.php

Perhaps you remember my post a long time ago where I explained the differences between baleen and toothed whales, the baleen plates that you seen above were actually considered the “plastics of the 1800s” (Plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland an American). Baleen Plates were used in women’s fashion in corsets and hoops for skirts. As they were sturdy, the baleen plates were also made into fishing rods, and carriage springs (Coolantarctica.com, 2015).

The Whaling Aftermath

The severe decline in whale population numbers in the diagrams shown above are a clear reflection of our irresponsible actions. Despite our increasing awareness of the need to protect these whales, the establishment and acknowledgement by most countries was probably too late as we now struggle to help the dwindling whale species to recover; The big blue whale that “is” will soon become “was” the largest mammal on earth.

“The commercial hunting of whales in the 20th century represents what was arguably – in terms of sheer biomass – the greatest wildlife exploitation episode in human history.” Clapham and Hatch 2000

Whales are just one of the many species that are undergoing the same fate – under the manipulation and oppression of humans. As I reflect on what the root cause was, I realised that our inevitable population growth had resulted in us becoming the world’s largest and scariest invasive species. From land, we have penetrated forests, rivers and now the vast ocean habitat. For economic profits and competition, our ancestors have overlooked the consequences of their actions. May the death of these whales not be in vain, but serve as a crucial reminder and precaution as we continue to develop and alter the earth for our needs.

References

Ballance, L. (2012). Whaling: Past, Present and Future. Retrieved 24 October 2015, from http://cetus.ucsd.edu/sio133/PDF/16%20-%20Whaling.pdf

Coolantarctica.com,. (2015). Whale Products – Antarctica fact file, Whales and Whaling 2. Retrieved 21 October 2015, from http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/wildlife/whales/whaling2.php

Petroleumhistory.org,. (2015). Whale Oil. Retrieved 21 October 2015, from http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Whale/whale.html

McNamara, & McNamara, R. (2015). What Products Were Produced from Whales?. About.com Education. Retrieved 21 October 2015, from http://history1800s.about.com/od/whaling/f/whaleproducts01.htm

Wwf.org.au,. (2015). Whaling FAQs. Retrieved 21 October 2015, from http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/wildlife_and_habitats/australian_priority_species/whales/threats_to_whales/whaling/whaling_faqs/

Featured image: http://channel6.dk/kosmos/uk/Page200.htm

Unstoppable whaling industry in Japan

You’ve heard and perhaps even seen whaling in Japan.

Yea you’ve heard that its bad, horrific, simply inhumane, but whaling still goes on in Japan despite the great degree of international attention and pressure. Why does this keep happening?

In this post, I am going to examine the current situation of whaling in Japan, the citizens perspective on it and analyse the attempts to stop whaling in Japan.

Firstly, the current whaling industry in Japan is slowly going down into the dumps

Whaling first peaked in Japan during the post World War 2 period, and seemed to be profitable. However, it has since steadily decreased to the point it is only 1% of the initial whale consumption during the 1960s (IFAW, 2013). Furthermore, horrific findings show that only about much of whale meat remains unsold due to the lack of demand. Even attempts to sell the whale meat at auctions reflect the futility, and diminishing future of the whaling industry. Shown in the figure below, only 1/4 of the stock from 2011-2012 were sold.

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Diagram 1: Taken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) ‘The Economics of Japanese Whaling’ (IFAW, 2013)
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Diagram 2: Taken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) ‘The Economics of Japanese Whaling’ (IFAW, 2013)

Diagram 2 above evidently shows the rapid decline in the demand for whale meat, shown by the black (share) and blue (mass) line.

Apart from the change in tastes, these two diagrams show that the Japanese citizens are subtly beginning to turn away from the whaling industry, which is further reflected in the majority’s reluctance to support the unprofitable industry through taxes, with close to 50% who oppose to the use of taxes and public finances to fund whaling activities (shown in the pie charts below).

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Taken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) ‘The Economics of Japanese Whaling’ The pie charts shows the Japanese citizens attitudes towards whaling. (IFAW, 2013)
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Taken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) ‘The Economics of Japanese Whaling’ The bar chart diagram above reflect the costs incurred for the whaling industry, while the orange portion reflects the subsidies channelled towards whaling, which are the tax payer’s contribution (IFAW, 2013).

How is Japan getting away with the killing of whales today?

“For Science”

Well that was their explanation for their technically illegal continuation in whaling activities, after the moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Whales were allowed to be killed for scientific research under the IWC. Ironically, after the moratorium was passed, the Japanese whaling industry went on a bloody massacre killing an excess of 14,000 whales since 1987, compared to 2,100 whales during 1952 – 1986 (34 years). Even under this what I call the ‘excuse blanket’, for the sake of “science”, Japanese whaling companies find themselves at a loss when they have failed to supply the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with information of their research – an extensive and unnecessary killing of up to 4000 minke whales (shown in the featured image) in the past 12 years, and these fate of these whales eventually just become cut up and stocked up in freezers. Aren’t they better alive in the magnificent sea, than to be silenced an unjust death and then placed in cold storage?

In its defence, Japan cited only two peer-reviewed scientific papers relating to its program from 2005 to the present, during which it has harpooned 3,600 minke whales, a handful of fin whales, and no humpback whales (McCurry, 2014).

Regardless, it is evident that the whaling industry is collapsing, with the addition of increased international awareness for the preservation of these whales, as well as the international restrictions imposed which squeezes and attacks the diminishing whaling market. The following diagram shows the relationship between whaling industries, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Whaling firms in Japan are held accountable to the ICR, who in turns communicates with the IWC with regards to the on-going research studies being conducted(IFAW, 2013).

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Taken from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) ‘The Economics of Japanese Whaling’ (IFAW, 2013).

Are we not strong enough to stop the annual massacre?

Australia and New Zealand took on Japan to the International Court of Justice in 2010 in an attempt to reduce or even stop whaling in Japan in the Antarctic. Although what seemed like a promising hope to all whale activists when the International Court of Justice had ordered Japan to stop when it had failed to abide by the law regulations of whaling for scientific research (12 to 4 ratio who were for the whaling in the Antarctic to be ceased), it didn’t seem like verbal order had any effect on the whaling industry, particularly in the North Pacific where whaling activities weren’t affected by the law passed on. However one must also understand that whaling is a controversial issue for Japan especially whose economy is highly dependent on seafood. The presence of these whales pose a threat to the blue fin tuna fishing industry which contributes extensively to the fishing community in Japan.

Despite several futile attempts to stop the whaling industry in Japan entirely, these are big steps that are driving us toward undertaking more ethical measures. Japan has reduced its minke whale targets from 935 to 333 (Heraldsun.com.au, 2015), this suggests that at least our efforts are able to change the destinies of 66% of targeted whales. 

What else can we do, apart from verbal condemnation and disgust for their activities, as we watch more killings occur? Do let me know what you think in the comments. Perhaps most of you readers have the same thoughts as I do, we can’t do much to save or protect these whales as we don’t have the power or authority to tell them to stop. But I believe, as we continue to educate and teach the new uprising generation on the consequences of our actions, we may finally see the fruits of our efforts in the future as our decisions made by the new generation would be those with the welfare of these creatures in mind.

International-Whaling-Commission-Warns-Japan-to-Stop-Hunting-Whales-Clapway-
Photo credits: http://clapway.com/2015/06/21/international-whaling-commission-warns-japan-to-stop-hunting-whales-123/

References:

IFAW. (2013) The Economics of Japanese Whaling. International Fund For Animal Welfare. http://www.ifaw.org/united-states/resource-centre/economics-japanese-whaling

ABC News. (2015). Japan confirms plan to resume whale hunt. Retrieved 18 October 2015, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-22/japan-confirms-plan-to-resume-whale-hunt/6565318

Public Radio International. (2015). Japan vows to continue its whaling program, despite an international ruling ordering it to stop. Retrieved 18 October 2015, from http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-26/japan-vows-continue-its-whaling-program-despite-international-ruling-ordering-it

News.sciencemag.org. (2015). Japan Ordered to Stop Scientific Whaling. Retrieved 18 October 2015, from http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2014/03/japan-ordered-stop-scientific-whaling

Heraldsun.com.au. (2015). Japanese whaling needs explaining. Retrieved 18 October 2015, from http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/japanese-whaling-needs-explaining/story-fni0xqll-1227303483466

McCurry, J. (2014). Japan told to halt Antarctic whaling by international court. the Guardian. Retrieved 18 October 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/japanese-whaling-halt-antarctic-international-court

Featured image taken from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-14/japanese-researchers-inspect-minke-whale-caught-in-north-west-p/6391222

C.O.T.M – Cetacean of the Month October

And this month’s cetacean is…

The Beluga Whale!

Yes you have seen this white squishy thing that can swim in the Arctic waters on National Geographic, but do you know who they really are?

Amazingly, they are known as the Canaries of the Sea. We’ve encountered previously with Humpback Whales having one of the most beautiful love songs, now how about the Beluga Whale who have one of the most complex auditory systems, and are able to hear excellently in the human frequency. That’s right, Beluga whales, unlike other whale or dolphin species who aren’t able to hear humans very clearly. Beluga whales and the Irrawady Dolphin are the only two species of cetaceans that are able to change their facial expressions (lip movement) when making these sounds. Unlike humans, they do not have any vocal chords, and the sounds are created by the movement of air through the nasal sacs, causing its big melon to alter its shape as well.

Here is a video of a Beluga mimicking its trainer’s voice! He could even say “Ohio” perfectly which means hello in Japanese. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCdsQSszOPw&feature=youtu.be

Belugas are a close relative of the Narwhals in the Monodontinae Family (under the Odontoceti). Both calves of the Beluga and the Narwhal look very similar, and it is said it would take as much as 8 years for the grey Beluga calf to turn white like the mature adult.

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Beluga Calf Photo credits: http://wgntv.com/2013/04/22/final-4-names-for-shedds-baby-beluga/
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Narwhal Calf Photo credits: http://posercontent.com/3d-models-for-daz-studio-and-poser/narwhal

Beluga whales lack a dorsal fin, have short beaks and a big round melon that is one of the thickest parts of the body to help break through surface ice to breathe air. The trademark of the Beluga Whale is its thick blubber which protects itself from the extreme cold waters of the Arctic where they are found. Its white appearance also helps it to camouflage among the ice as it hunts for a variety of salmon, Arctic cod, herring, crabs, octopuses and so much more!

Distribution of the Beluga Whale Photo credits: http://us.whales.org/species-guide/beluga-whale
Distribution of the Beluga Whale
Photo credits: http://us.whales.org/species-guide/beluga-whale

These Beluga whales are currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN red list 2008, but the species are increasingly threatened by anthropogenic reasons. The greatest threats to the Beluga Whales are climate change, offshore drilling operations, pollution, prey depletion – the competition for scarce food resources as a result of over-fishing, and by-catch activities in the Arctic.

Hope that you have learn more about the Belugas for the month of October (:

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Here you can see and compare the size of a Beluga Whale and an average human. Photo credits: http://home.bt.com/news/odd-news/rescued-beluga-whales-show-their-playful-side-by-squirting-water-at-trainers-11363969874942

References:

Featured image taken from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthpicturegalleries/8210202/Animal-pictures-of-the-week-17-December-2010.html?image=3

Defenders of Wildlife,. (2012). Basic Facts About Beluga Whales. Retrieved 10 October 2015, from http://www.defenders.org/beluga-whale/basic-facts

SeaWorld. (2015). Seaworld.org. Retrieved 10 October 2015, from http://seaworld.org/animal-info/animal-infobooks/beluga-whales/communication/

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation,. (2015). Beluga whale. Retrieved 10 October 2015, from http://us.whales.org/species-guide/beluga-whale

Seaworld Trainer saved by Orca Takara

I came across this article shared on Facebook about how John Hargrove, a Seaworld Trainer that was saved by Orca Takara during an accident that had occurred during one of their practices.

The link for Hargrove’s personal recount is found in this link:
http://wearesonar.org/2015/07/04/orca-takara-rescues-trainer-at-seaworld/

I was truly amazed as I read about how Takara tried to pull on the jam breaks, and went echo-locating immediately in the 12 meter deep pool to look for her partner. Additionally, it was mentioned that Takara even circled around Hargrove, emitting her powerful sonars to check on how he was doing. A dolphin’s echolocation is known to be able to penetrate through objects, it was as if Takara was giving him a full body check up.

This article had personally touched my heart as it reflects the relationship between trainer and the animal, as I reflect on my relationship with Shiye. It was my last day as a full-timer before I headed for university in my following week, and as I gave Shiye my last final goodbye in our last session for that day. I signalled for a hug to Shiye, and upon queue, that playful boy gently came into my arms. Unknowingly, Shiye began to turn to his side and rest comfortably in my arms as his left eye starred at me, this was something he had never done before. It was truly magical to be in the moment of trust and friendship. We’ve been through a lot together, more tough times (yea he gave me a really tough time when I first met him!), but even more precious times spent together as buddies (:

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Can we bring the Baiji Dolphin back from extinction? Going against the Laws of Nature through Science

The Baiji Dolphin, or the Yangtze River Dolphin, was once known as the ‘goddess of the Yangtze’. However, these fresh water species was dethroned by man by 2006, and was officially announced extinct by experts.

From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, the Baiji Dolphin population had significantly decreased by more than 75% (from 400 to 100 and less). A 1997 investigation had led to an astonishing finding of only 13 precious Baijis.

The explanation for the Baiji Dolphin’s rapid decline owes to increased anthropogenic activities in the river – the construction of dams, overfishing and increased boat traffic, leading to frequent boat collisions and miscommunications for these blind dolphins who largely depend on echo-location for survival. In my previous post about the Amazon River dolphins, we see a parallel between these two species, who both rely heavily on sound, and whose existence was and now are currently threatened by anthropogenic activities.

The extinction of the Baiji Dolphin calls for an immediate attention to save other species facing the same threat, including the Amazon River Dolphin and the Yangtze finless porpoise.

So the next question is…

Can we bring the Baiji Dolphin back to life after extinction?

Carl Zimmer (National Geographic) explains De-extinction, and its scientific process with today’s technology.

You’ve seen the movie Jurassic World and marvel at the science to recreate an extinct species genome and bring it back to life (Queue Jurassic World them song in the back ground). But is all that just a myth or a fairy tale? Well you better be ready, for scientist are currently making it come true.

testtube dna
Photo credits: http://www.livescience.com/16589-faq-cloning-animals.html

Carl Zimmer had the opportunity to interact with experts – geneticists, wild-life biologists, conservationists and ethicists, who discussed extraordinary advancements in “manipulating stem cells, in recovering ancient DNA, in reconstructing lost genomes”, coming to the exciting conclusion that De-extinction today is no longer just a myth. It is “now within reach”.

As exciting as it sounds, the article explains further that De-extinction technology today however, can  only be feasible for species that had died “within the past tens of thousands of years”, with specimens containing “intact cells” that is sufficient for reconstruction of a species genome. Dinosaur fanatics would probably have to wait for a few more decades when new advances in technology are made known to man, or a miracle find of the ancient Tyrannosaurus rex genome extinct 65 million years ago.

Ibex testtube
Photo credits: http://www.vvarma.com/2014/06/brainwave.html

Although De-extinction is the new cutting edge of science for humanity, the process and results are long and tedious, alongside a huge investment placed into the research project. Our closest step towards De-extinction was in 2003 – where Spanish and French scientist managed to revive the Pyrenean ibex ( a wild goat known as the burcardo that was extinct due to over hunting), but only for a mere ten minutes. As you have learnt in your biology class, or heard about cloning of Dolly the Sheep, the process was similar, involving the transfer of the genome sequence, into a new cell (of a close relative) that had been shocked using electricity to remove its original nuclei. This embryo is then transferred into the womb of surrogate mothers. The whole process could take more than 10 years to complete, often with disappointing results, but a step closer to De-extinction.

pyrenean ibex
The Pyrenean Ibex (now extinct) Photo credits: http://planetsave.com/2015/05/31/5-animals-gone-extinct-past-50-years/

In addition, the article touched on an important point – why bother spending so much money on resurrecting extinct species when you can channel these resources to saving the endangered ones?

The answer – we have the obligation to do so.

The extinction of these species was largely due to careless and irresponsible anthropogenic activities, driving us further into the Holocene extinction. Through De-extinction, we not only correct our past mistakes, but also developing the technology that will enable us to help in the breeding projects of endangered species under the care of man.

Furthermore, many other challenges still exist. Rehabilitated species like the Arabian oryx became critically endangered shortly after their release into the wild due to poachers. “The world wasn’t ready”, said biologist Struat Pimm of Duke University. Being able to revive the Baiji Dolphin is tough, and even near impossible despite advances in De-extinction, due to the harsh and inhospitable Yangtze River conditions.

What can we do then? Start by acting responsibly, think before you act.

Are we the earth’s greatest enemy and hypocrites?

References:

National Geographic Article written by Carl Zimmer: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/125-species-revival/zimmer-text
Ngm.nationalgeographic.com,. (2013). Bringing Extinct Species Back to Life – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/125-species-revival/zimmer-text

News.nationalgeographic.com,. (2006). China’s Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announc. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061214-dolphin-extinct_2.html

Featured image of Baiji Dolphin taken from: http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2010/09/07/witness-to-execution-how-we-failed-to-save-the-yangtze-river-dolphin/

Whale Watching Ecotourism

Have you ever been on a Whale watching expedition before?

Personally, I have not, but I would definitely do whatever it takes, just to see these magnificent creatures in this life time.

After seeing amazing pictures that these privileged tourists had took home with them on Facebook, I decided to look up on Google where I could go for whale watching. Trip advisor had led me to Kaikoura, New Zealand who had received significant positive reviews shown here below:

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Screen Shot of Whale Watch Ecotourism in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Website link: http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/Attraction_Review-g255374-d546531-Reviews-Whale_Watch-Kaikoura_Canterbury_Region_South_Island.html

After reading all the reviews, it made me even more thrilled to look forward to the day I get on that Whale Watching Boat! However, as I continued my search, one particular customer was extremely dissatisfied with a different company, and even claimed that the company had partaken in unethical Whale Watching along with untrained guides.

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Screenshot taken from Trip Advisor Website link: http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/ShowUserReviews-g298424-d1396846-r310616954-Boquete_Outdoor_Adventures-Boquete_Chiriqui_Province.html

A representative from Boquete Outdoor Aventures (BOA) responded and disagreed with what the customer.

Our company is knowledgeable about the whales and adheres to Panama’s whale watching guidelines issued by ARAP (Water Resources Authority of Panama). We disagree to any unethical behavior that you are stating. Our guide is a certified wildlife and birdwatching naturalist guide and is very knowledgeable about the wildlife specific to Panama…

Our captain is a licensed boat captain … for over 15 years and is familiar with the regulations of Panama to which we adhere. With responsible whale watching, we respect the animals first and foremost, trying to approach from an angle. Once at a safe distance, we continue parallel to the whales. If they come close to us, we put the boat in neutral or turn off the motor. The whales are very docile and calm during the whale watching tour, surfacing for air every 20-30 seconds, when we get some great views and photos ops. They do not seem agitated by our presence, and we usually depart after a brief time of viewing.

A responsible whale watching tour should give maximum experience and observation with minimum impact on the animals being observed and the marine environment. Being in business for over 10 years, we are a responsible company and we maintain an excellent reputation in the local community as being an advocate for protection of wildlife and the environment.
http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/ShowUserReviews-g298424-d1396846-r310616954-Boquete_Outdoor_Adventures-Boquete_Chiriqui_Province.html#

Upon reflection, I have realised that Whale Watching isn’t merely a simple issue. It involves the creation of laws, and the maintenance and strong reinforcement of the laws in order to protect these creatures whilst them being the source of revenue for this industry. Under the close watch by most government bodies, companies like BOA strive to protect the welfare of these animals, and uphold what the intended purpose for Ecotourism was – to inspire and impact without inducing harm.

Astonishing as it sounds, the Whale Watching Ecotourism industry has generated about $2.1 Billion by 2008 (‘Whale Watching Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures And Expanding Economic Benefits’), and generated 13,200 jobs in total from more than 3000 Whale Watching operations.

However, there are drawbacks to Ecotourism regardless how much we try to prevent environmental degradation. The very essence of Ecotourism would mean the introduction of humans to a part of the earth that was once undisturbed. Moreover, there is no guarantee that every whale watching organisation may adhere to strict rules and regulations, especially when profit maximisation takes over the importance of protecting these creatures and their habitat. This can be seen in developing countries such as Sri Lanka (D Ilangakoon), in which the increase in boat traffic due to Whale Watching may spell trouble for endangered blue whales in these waters. The number of Whale Watching vessels have increased from 2 in 2009, to 17 in 2012. The competition among these organisations and a lack of knowledge about these whales and behavioural ecology has lead to unethical practices and harassment to these creatures. 

Unethical Whale and Dolphin watching organisations have known to feed these wild animals in order to draw them to the boats so as to achieve greater customer satisfaction. This results in these wild cetaceans to be drawn to other boats with dangerous motors and can cause serious injury. Some boats even drive closely to induce behaviours such as breaching (jumping). Ultimately, these unethical actions are extremely detrimental and paves the way for more species to move towards extinction.

So what can we do?

We as customers have the greatest influence. When deciding to participate in Whale Watching, go to operators who are recognised for their ethical operations and have recognition by the local government. Refrain from patronising unethical operators, and report to governing authorities or large conservation groups such as IFAW and WDC who have the capacity to stop them, when you observe unethical actions such as intentional high speed driving to invoke breaching behaviours, for operators are to slow down upon sighting a whale or a pod. For more information, you may refer to this website: http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/whale-watching/travel-guide/whale-watching-responsible-tourism-issues for more information on what to look out for on your trip!

Featured Image taken from Trip Advisor:
http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/Attraction_Review-g255374-d546531-Reviews-Whale_Watch-Kaikoura_Canterbury_Region_South_Island.html#photos

References:

‘Whale Watching Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures And Expanding Economic Benefits’. International Fund for Animal Welfare (2009): n. pag. Print.

D Ilangakoon, Anoukchika. ‘Exploring Anthropogenic Activities That Threaten Endangered Blue Whales (Balaenoptera Musculus) Off Sri Lanka’. Marine Animals and Their Ecology 5.1 (2012): n. pag. Print.

Threats to the home of the Pink Amazon River Dolphin

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The Pink Amazon River Dolphin. Found only in Freshwater bodies of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. Though their eyes are tiny, they are still used; but most of the time, they mainly depend on echolocation for their daily activities. Photo credits: http://us.whales.org/species-guide/boto-amazon-river-dolphin

The Pink Amazon River Dolphin is one out of five species of freshwater dolphins in the world.

Apart from its outstanding colour – mainly due to capillaries that are near the skin (Video.nationalgeographic.com), it ranks the charts for several things. Among all the 5 species of freshwater dolphins, they are the largest in physical size -largest known measurement was 2.5m (WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation), and also the smartest – having a brain capacity 40% larger than that of humans (Dolphins-world.com).

map_boto
This following map shows the distribution of Amazon River Dolphins highlighted in light blue. Photo credits: http://us.whales.org/species-guide/boto-amazon-river-dolphin

What are they threatened by?

The Amazon River Dolphins, also known as Boto, are found in the Orinoco and Amazon River basin. Although the current status given by the IUCN is ‘Data Deficient’ in 2008(Iucnredlist.org), there are many known threats, mostly due to man, to these endangered species – classified as vulnerable until 1996 (Iucnredlist.org). 

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Photo taken by Kevin Schafer, National Geographic. “River dolphins navigating the Amazon Basin’s tea-colored brew of silt and rotting vegetation seem to glow orange. Out of water they’re pale gray, with some marked in pink. Called botos here in Brazil, they use high-frequency sonar clicks to build a 3-D echogram of their dark world.” Photo credits: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/dolphins/schafer-photography

The IUCN explains the major threats faced by this species includes

  1. Injuries caused by fishing-gears – Dolphins are naturally curious by nature
  2. Predation control – killing off these dolphins would mean less competition for fish as a food resource
  3. Pollution of the Amazon River – from organochlorines and heavy metals (Iucnredlist.org). These pollutants weaken the immunity of dolphins to diseases, leaving them more susceptible to infections(International Rivers).
  4. New facilities such as dams and hydropower – an intrusion to their natural habitat influences a variety of factors such as feeding sites (fish). A physical barrier blocks fish migrations (International Rivers) that are important for spawning and rearing, this ultimately affects populations of fish that these dolphins feed on. More importantly, the barrier directly cuts off fresh supply of materials by being trapped behind its high walls, depriving deltas, floodplains and coastal wetlands of their much needed maintenance supplies.

This brings up a controversial issue of the establishment of dams and hydropower in biodiversity rich areas like the Amazon. Countries like Brazil are highly dependent on hydropower to generate electricity to support the current demand by their population (Koch).

The Amazon River Dolphin is just one of the thousands of species found in the rich habitat of the Amazon. Should our wildlife be sacrificed at the expense of our needs?

References:

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation,. ‘Boto (Amazon River Dolphin)’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Dolphins-world.com,. ‘Pink Amazon River Dolphin – Dolphin Facts And Information’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Video.nationalgeographic.com,. ‘Pink River Dolphins’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Iucnredlist.org,. ‘Inia Geoffrensis (Amazon River Dolphin, Boto, Boutu, Pink River Dolphin)’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

International Rivers,. ‘Environmental Impacts Of Dams’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Koch, Wendy. ‘Amazon’S Wildlife Threatened By Hydropower Dams, Study Says’. News.nationalgeographic.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

International Rivers,. ‘River Dolphins: Can They Be Saved?’. N.p., 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Noisy Ocean Mayhem – The impact of sonars on Cetaceans

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Here is a picture of Sola and I. Check out her beautiful features on her face!

Dolphins have a pair of eyes that move independently of one another! With a layer of protective film that protects the eye from harmful pathogens in the water. They can see clearly both above and under water. Do you think dolphins have ears?

If you say yes, you’re right!

Yes! Dolphins have ears too! Take a close look to see if you can spot the tiny pin-hole-like ear just behind her eye.

“HERE!” “NO! OVER HERE!” “WHAT?” “WAIT HUH?”

The ocean is so much noisier than we think it is.

Many anthropogenic activities such as commercial shipping, offshore gas and oil drilling, and navy military activities in the sea has contributed to a significant amount of noise pollution to our marine animals in the ocean.

Seismic Airgun Testing Oceana Infographic
This diagram above compares the extent of frequencies emitted by a seismic air gun testing which is 100,000 times to that of a jet plane! These seismic air gun frequencies are frequently emitted by Offshore drills and military naval practices. Photo credits: http://www.livescience.com/47914-offshore-drilling-tests-will-harm-industries-and-wildlife.html

Noise pollution as we know disturbs and affects our daily activities. But for these marine animals, cetaceans in particular, they have it off even worse than we can imagine. Here is why…

Cetaceans are highly dependent on echolocation and sound in their environments. These mammals themselves produce a variety of sounds that are essential for foraging, navigation, communication, and sensing the environment especially when it is dark, and when they don’t have their sense of sight to help them.

Imagine being placed in a dark room with about 10 people shouting instructions to you on how to move around to reach your end point. Likewise, it is the same for them.

Odontocetis, like dolphins (bottlenose dolphins and orcas), produce echolocation clicks in the ultrasonic frequencies, and lower-frequency tonal whistles for communications. They are highly sensitive to sounds over a broad frequency range of 20-140kHz, varying across each species.

Mystecetis on the other hand, the baleen whales (humpback whales and blue whales), produce longer, lower-frequency tonal sounds for communication. The specific frequency range for hearing sensitivity for this group of mammals are unclear with only few anatomical studies conducted that give us an estimated 10-20kHz answer.

dolphin and echolocation
This diagram shows how echolocation is conducted by a dolphin. Photo credits: http://academic.reed.edu/biology/professors/srenn/pages/teaching/web_2006/jennynoah/mechanism.html

The IWDG (Irish Whale and Dolphin Group) have listed the following consequences on cetaceans as a result of the use of high frequency sounds in anthropogenic activities

  1. Physiological damage
    Damage to body tissues, and particularly the ears.
    Just like humans, experiencing a high frequency sound can cause serious damage to the auditory system. Ultimately, stress factors had led to increase heart rate and respiratory rates, affecting their overall well being.
  2. Perceptual consequence
    When certain frequencies used by machinery overlaps with the frequency that cetaceans use for communication and echo-location, these poor creatures get confused and are sometimes misled. This leads to the next point of…
  3. Behavioral changes
    With foreign sounds invading into their habitat, these cetaceans tend to flee from them, causing major disruptions in their feeding, breeding (migration related) and resting locations. This displacement can cause changes to ecosystems in certain areas.
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Photo credits: http://cetussociety.org/2015/07/whats-all-the-underwater-buzz-about-underwater-noise-and-cetacean-health/

What is being done then?

Many researchers have conducted experiments to find out each species frequency sensitivity range. This data collected and strategies suggested by experts are then passed on to marine experts who work together with businesses engaged in anthropogenic activities to minimize the impact of our actions to the cetacean community.

Understanding each species peaked sensitivity and frequency threshold, that is – the frequencies that they are acutely sensitive to, is crucial when we venture into their environments for future human developments such as offshore drilling. Sounds travel 4.5 times faster in water than it does in air, while low frequency sounds travel farther underwater than high frequency sounds. Anthropogenic activities such as offshore drilling and military exercises can produce ear-piercing equivalent sounds that result in a lot of physiological damage and behavioural alterations.

There isn’t much as an individual that I can do or help these creatures in this aspect, unless I can create a GPS for each species. I can only hope that these businesses do contribute and put in the effort to ensure that strategies proposed are adhered to as much as possible, to improve the lives of these cetaceans that we had disrupted.

References:

O’ Brien, Joanne, Simon Berrow, and Dave Wall. ‘The Impact Of Multibeam On Cetaceans: A Review Of Best Practice’. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (2005): n. pag. Print.

Smelly Business – Importance of Whale POOP in the Marine Ecosystem!

Did you know?

The marine ecosystem is highly dependent on WHALE POOP to support many of its other living inhabitants!

Yes, that’s right! Out of the many important things the ocean needs, is the defecation from Whales.

Experiments conducted had shown high levels of concentration of nitrogen in humpback fecal samples(Roman and McCarthy). This nitrogen is essential as a fertiliser to help promote the growth of Phytoplankton and other microbes. In turn, these Phytoplankton are the Primary Producers of the ocean (just like plants), which serves as a crucial food source for many other marine life including filter-feeding Zooplankton and Krill.

Here is a diagram taken from the journal article The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin.

Figure 1 from WHALE POOP 3 JA
This diagram is taken from the Journal Article “The Whale Pump”. It depicts the nitrogen cycle in the Ocean via the Whale Pump. Nitrogen often sink down to the lower levels of the ocean by the Biological pump ( by fecal pellets, vertical migration, and death of marine organisms). As whales such as the Humpback whale feeds on the deeper levels of the ocean, they soon act as transporters of Nitrogen when they frequently go back up to the surface to breathe. Thus acting as “The Whale Pump”. Defecation by whales can occur at any depth of the ocean, including the region where phytoplankton are located near the surface (for they require light for photosynthesis).

The experiment had also found samples of Phytoplankton and other microbes that use the Nitrogen (In ammonia) within the fecal samples collected from the tagged Humpback Whales.

Cetaceans deliver approximately 77% of the nutrients released to the gulf by mammals and birds

With a high contribution towards the recycling of nutrients in the large ocean bodies, there is no doubt that Whales play a crucial role in maintaining these marine ecosystems. The absence of these massive creatures could result in a devastating imbalance to food chains and webs.

Moreover, the existence of these whales in their regions provides a constant food supply that is sufficient to support many of the marine life which depends on it. This in turn translates to ensured individual species survival and reproduction.

I hope you have learnt something new today, and perhaps this knowledge of can translate into, and inspire future innovations to fully utilise every single resource that we have.

Not all waste are waste.

References:

Roman, Joe, and James J. McCarthy. ‘The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity In A Coastal Basin’. PLoS ONE 5.10 (2010): e13255. Web.