Tag Archives: whale

A humpback can be home to a half-ton of barnacles

Published March 21, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

The Coronula diadema, or whale barnacle, is known to live only on the skin of humpback whales. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

On a beach last week, Molokai reader Robert Maughan found a shell he describes as a 2-1/2-by-2-1/2-inch coral-urchin-barnacle. “Never seen the likes,” Maughan wrote. He sent two photos, and I had never seen the likes, either. But I recognized the shape and soon found the answer. Maughan had found the shell of Coronula diadema, a barnacle species that grows only on humpback whales.

Left to its own devices, an adult barnacle is a stationary creature, stuck at home forever. Living on the skin of a whale, however, is like riding a bus through Foodland. As the whale swims, the barnacles on board stick out their feathery feet and snag passing plankton.

Gray whales also have their own distinct barnacle, which begs the question: How do species-specific barnacle babies locate the right whale to ride?

It starts with the basics. Barnacles require internal fertilization, but this is tough when you’re glued to one spot.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles attached to the ventral pleats of a humpback whale calf (photo taken during necropsy). Alaska, Peril Strait, Baranof Island. 2005 October 18. Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Barnacles overcome this handicap by bearing both eggs and sperm. The creatures don’t self-fertilize, but because they live in shell-to-shell colonies, each barnacle can snake out its remarkably long penis and fertilize the neighbor’s eggs.

DNA studies show that some barnacles fertilize more distant members by ejaculating into the water. Others of the species catch the drifting sperm.

Fertilized eggs grow into swimming larvae that must find a home in a neighborhood of its own kind or die. This is easier than it sounds because adult colony members release chemical signals that help youngsters find their own species.

Once a young barnacle touches a whale’s skin, the larva uses its antennae to walk around the whale in search of prime real estate on the head or fins. A sticky substance helps the larvae hang on while trekking.

Maughan wrote that when he found the shell, it had a black membrane over its bottom. That was whale skin. Once it’s happy with a location, the developing barnacle gradually draws into its shell prongs of growing whale skin, rooting the barnacle firmly in place.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

Whale barnacle, bottom. ©2016 Robert Maughan.

An adult humpback whale can carry up to 1,000 pounds of barnacles. But because whales weigh about 80,000 pounds, the barnacle load is no more of a burden than us wearing a sweater.

Thank you, Robert, for sharing your story and pictures. I know that during beach walks a lot of us will now be looking for our own whale barnacles.

Curious minke whale makes a rare offshore appearance

Published October 20, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Pacific Ocean, 22 degrees South, 163 degrees East » After sailing thousands of miles through the tropical Pacific, I’m no longer surprised by how few whales and dolphins appear offshore. It makes sense because warm water contains fewer nutrients than cold and therefore supports less life.

Even so. Marine mammals do live in and transit these balmy waters, and it’s a bit disappointing to sail offshore year after year and never once see a fin, fluke or blow.

My dry spell is now broken. About a third through our 800-mile passage from New Caledonia to Australia, where the Coral Sea meets the Southern Ocean, Honu had a distinguished visitor.

One day, as I lay in the cockpit looking back, Craig, looking forward, shouted, “Dolphin off the bow! Or maybe it’s a whale.”

We jumped up to see on the surface a classic whale “footprint,” an unmistakable swirl of flat water caused by a large animal’s dive.

As we stood on the deck, a minute later the creature appeared again near the starboard side of the boat. It was clearly a whale, smaller than a humpback or fin but larger than a pilot. The animal’s breath made a gentle whoosh, but no spray came from its blowholes.

While we were still gaping, the black, smooth-skinned back cut the water, this time behind the boat. Moments later the whale appeared on our port side. There was no doubt about it. This marine mammal was circling Honu and checking us out.

I raced to fetch my camera. Too late. Swimming around the boat once had satisfied the creature’s curiosity, and it disappeared in the deep without a trace.

A photo is the only way to be sure of a species, but lacking that, I think I know the identity of our whale because it so precisely fits the description in my books. Our distinguished guest was a minke whale.


Minke Whale – public domain photo from NOAA

The minke, pronounced MINK-ee, gets its odd name from the men who once hunted whales. The story goes that a novice whaler, Meincke, shouted out sightings of the little whale at a time the species was considered too small to be worth the effort of harpooning and hauling aboard. The other sailors mockingly gave the species the man’s name.

The minke is the sport model of the baleen whales, being sleek, fast and having a distinctly pointed snout. The species name, acutorostrata, means sharp snout.

At an average of 27 feet long, minkes are also the smallest of their baleen relatives and the most abundant. Like all baleen whales, minkes strain the water for krill and small fish.

Minke whales rarely make a visible blow — check — and usually travel singly throughout every ocean in the world. Yep.

But what finalized my guess of minke is that the species is well known for suddenly, without warning, appearing alongside boats, much to the surprise and delight of the people aboard.

A great big affirmative.

Its curiosity satisfied, the minke then swiftly vanishes. Right. Farewell, sweet whale. Your call meant the world to me.

New Caledonia and Australia each claim to have the longest coral reef in the world. But who cares? I’m just happy to be sailing between them.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


Neptune notwithstanding, beached whales are baffling

Published December 16, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A pilot whale surfaces off Hawaii island. Courtesy Robin W. Baird

No one knows whether the living whales returned safely to the open ocean or if they died and got recycled by sharks and other marine scavengers.

Nor does anyone know why pilot whales, many young and seemingly healthy, sometimes beach themselves.

With all the gloomy stories we hear about oil spills, global warming and pollution, it would be easy to blame the whales’ plight on human activity. But while some of those factors may play a part in modern standings, pilot whales swimming to their deaths on beaches is not a new phenomenon.

Around 350 B.C. Aristotle wrote about beached whales (species unknown, but pilot whales, the species most commonly stranded, are found in the Mediterranean): “It is not known why they sometimes run aground on the seashore: for it is asserted that this happens rather frequently when the fancy takes them and without any apparent reason.”

Ancient Romans believed that grounding was Neptune’s punishment to whales that behaved badly.

Whether naughty or nice, pods of pilot whales and other species, such as sperm whales, have likely been swimming to their deaths in the shallows since whales have been in the sea, about 50 million years. And not because it strikes their fancy. There’s a reason it happens. We just don’t know what it is.

That’s not for lack of trying. Researchers have been studying pilot whale carcasses for decades, and although no one knows why entire pods of the 13- to 18-foot-long whales occasionally end up on beaches, scientists have theories.

The most probable is that the whales’ navigation system malfunctions. This might be from a viral or bacterial disease that infects the pod, heavy metal pollutants, an undersea earthquake, magnetic field anomalies, unusually warm or cold oceanic currents, getting lost while fleeing predators or chasing prey, or some combination of these. Or none of the above. Research is ongoing.

There is, however, some good news. A 2012 study showed that five Australian pilot whales guided back to sea after stranding survived. This suggests that although not all individuals in a pod can be saved, some can.

Mass strandings of marine mammals touch our hearts, moving a wide variety of officials and volunteers to launch rescue attempts. It’s good to know that some of those efforts succeed.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2013 Susan Scott

It’s unlikely shark killed whale at North Shore

Published December 15, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Last week, a 20-foot-long juvenile sperm whale washed up dead at a beach park on the North Shore.

Biologists said they didn’t know the cause of death, but that didn’t stop people from speculating. One observer said, “I think a shark did it, because you have plenty of sharks out there.”

Good guess but probably wrong. Sharks aren’t that stupid. Because to mess with a healthy sperm whale, even a young one, is asking for big trouble.

Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales. Males grow up to 60 feet long and weigh up to 58 tons. Female sperm whales are smaller, growing to “only” 37 feet long.

Although they are big and have a mouth full of enormous teeth, sperm whales also find safety in numbers. These are sociable animals, usually traveling in groups of up to 50. During peak breeding season, from late winter to late summer, sperm whales can gather in groups of up to 150 whales.

Such groups consist either of bachelor bulls, or of females and their young accompanied by one or more large males. When not traveling with their harems, these large males roam the world’s oceans alone.

And roam they do. Sperm whales cover a tremendous area, traveling from the tropics all the way to the ice packs of both Northern and Southern hemispheres.

They can also be found at a wide range of depths, from the surface, where the spray from their blow hole is distinctively angled, to 10,000 feet down.

What are sperm whales doing at those cold, dark depths? Eating giant squid and octopuses. These whales sometimes bear round sucker marks on their skin from their battles with the big cephalopods. A 36-foot long squid was once found in a sperm whale’s stomach.

Although squid and octopuses are sperm whales’ main food, an amazing variety of other things have been found in their stomachs: seals, lobsters, sponges, crabs, jellyfish, rocks, sand, glass fishing floats, coconuts, wood, apples, fishing line, shoes, and of course, the ubiquitous scourge of the ocean, plastic bags.

Researchers also recovered a 10-foot blue shark from the stomach of a large male.

And that’s why it isn’t likely sharks caused the death of the young Oahu sperm whale. Any whale that can swallow a 36-foot giant squid or a 10-foot shark isn’t likely to fall prey, or let its offspring fall prey, to a shark, even a big one.

Sure, the carcass of this 20-foot-long whale had several shark bites on it, and sharks were spotted in the vicinity. But that’s normal for any carcass drifting in the ocean. Sharks are part of nature’s recycling system.

Even though sharks may not be much of a threat to sperm whales, the whales do have two formidable enemies: killer whales and people.

Since killer whales can eat just about anything they come across, they occasionally attack and kill a sperm whale.

People once attacked and killed sperm whales relentlessly, but sperm whales didn’t usually go down without a fight. This is, after all, the legendary species that sent sailors flying through the air, smashed their whaleboats and killed Captain Ahab.

Commercial hunting of sperm whales began in 1712 when people discovered that the material in the whales’ heads made good lamp oil. The most intense hunting came during the Yankee whaling era of the 1800s and the factory ship whaling of this century.

The good news is that although certain populations have been depleted, the sperm whale today is the most abundant of all the great whales.

Sperm whales are spotted occasionally around the main islands but are more common in the waters of Hawaii’s northwest chain.

Ancient Hawaiians carved pendants from the teeth of whales that washed ashore but did not hunt sperm whales.

Ambergris was a treasure in bad old whaling days

Published October 14, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I recently received a call from a reader. “I want to write a book about ambergris,” he said. “Would you tell me, please, what you know about it?”

I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Ambergris. Hmm. Something about sperm whales and perfume? What was it about ambergris?

The silence on the line lengthened.

“Are you there?” my caller asked.

“Yes. I’m thinking,” I said. “I can’t tell you anything about ambergris.”

He seemed almost happy to hear this. “So that means it would be a good subject for a book, right? If people don’t know about it?”

“Maybe. If people want to know about it.”

We discussed book writing for a while, then he was off to the library.

I was left with a nagging suspicion that people might not flock to buy a book about ambergris. Ambergris, I soon learned, is whale poop.

To put it more scientifically, ambergris is a waxy substance occasionally produced in the large intestine of sperm whales. The stuff usually looks like lumpy, large potatoes – smooth and dark brown outside; pale yellow to gray inside. The lumps are firm but break apart easily.

Often, parrotlike beaks from squid are embedded in the center of ambergris chunks.

People usually find ambergris either floating on the water’s surface, or on a beach. Rarely, masses have been found weighing several hundred pounds.

If you find some disgusting, foul-smelling lump of excrement on the beach, forget it. Fresh ambergris has its own smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Old ambergris smells like musty base ment. An easy way to identify ambergris is to pierce it with a hot needle. Ambergris melts like chocolate, leaving a tacky coating on the needle.

Back in the bad old days of whaling, ambergris was highly prized as an ingredient (called a fixative) in perfume to keep it from evaporating.

Whalers discovering ambergris in the intestines of dead sperm whales had found treasure. Ambergris sold for $15 an ounce, a fortune in the 1880s. Today, even though the perfume industry now uses synthetic fixatives, ambergris is still worth several dollars an ounce.

Sperm whale bodies contained other once-coveted, commercial treasures. The characteristic blunt, squarish snouts of sperm whales contain a barrel-shaped organ, known to whalers as the case. Inside the case is a clear liquid oil called spermaceti.

When it hardens, spermaceti looks like white paraffin of a consistency that reminded sailors of whale semen. And that’s where these magnificent animals got their common name, sperm whale.

Spermaceti made excellent candles and ambergris made good perfume. A third sperm whale commodity was the animal’s body fat, cooked to make oil for cosmetics, soap and machine oil.

Sperm whale hunting began in 1712 in New England. The first Yankee whale ships arrived in Hawaii in 1819. They spotted and killed a sperm whale off the Big Island.

Little whaling was subsequently done in the vicinity of the main islands but news of sperm whales in Japan triggered a rush of whaleboats to Hawaii. By 1822, 60 ships were here. For the next 18 years, Hawaii’s economy was fueled by provisioning these ships and entertaining their men.

There’s good news at the end of this sperm whale tale. Although certain populations are depleted, sperm whales remain the most abundant of all the great whales, swimming the world’s high seas.

Therefore, it’s possible to find ambergris on a Hawaii beach. But regardless of its elegant uses and colorful history, when you pick it up, remember: It’s still whale poop.

Irresistible adventure with the whale shark

Published May 13, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996Susan Scott

ABOUT a year ago, a friend called to invite me to join a small group traveling to Western Australia to swim with whale sharks. I wasn’t sure where this was exactly, I didn’t know much about whale sharks and the trip was expensive.

Just say no, my sensible self told me. I signed on and went back to work.

Then, last week, that far-off day finally arrived. I was on a dive boat in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia, speeding toward whale shark territory.

But rather than being exhilarated, I was jumpy, and fighting a nervous stomach.

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. In moments, I would be jumping into the water with an enormous shark that people knew little about.

Oh sure, I knew whale sharks were plankton feeders. And I had seen pictures of people swimming with them. But looking at pictures was one thing; snorkeling alongside the creature was another matter entirely.

As I fretted, a spotting plane droned in the sky above our boat. This was part of the routine. When the pilot saw a shark, he radioed its position to several boat captains.

The boat captains then sorted out who would drop how many passengers into what area of the ocean.

SUCH details are strictly set by Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management, the agency responsible for this unique marine park. Managers and users alike are determined to preserve and protect this rare marine treasure.

And rare it is. The unique combination of coral spawning events, marine currents and nearshore location makes Ningaloo Reef off Exmouth one of the few places in the world humans can see whale sharks.

It also creates one of the few places where biologists can study the little-known creatures.

One such researcher from Perth University hitched a ride on our boat and answered questions as we waited for the plane to radio good news about spotting sharks.

WHALE sharks are the world’s largest fish, growing to about 50 feet long and ranging throughout tropical waters.

These sharks have thousands of tiny teeth but neither bite nor chew their food.

Like manta rays, whale sharks eat by drawing water in their mouths and out their gills, straining plankton in the process.

And that’s about it. No one knows how these big fish reproduce, how long they live or how many exist.

Our biology talk was cut off by the excited shout of our dive leader. “Get ready,” he called. Then, “Quick, JUMP IN!”

Frantically adjusting masks and snorkels, 10 of us fell into the water, kicking like mad to keep up with our leader.

And then suddenly, there it was, a 40-foot shark just a few feet from my face. The creature bore the familiar dorsal and tail fins of most sharks, but there the resemblance ended. This shark was a luxurious velvety blue adorned with symmetrical white spots.

THE whale shark’s mouth was working rhythmically, sucking in water like a giant vacuum, then pushing it out through its gill slits.

We watched the shark for what seemed like seconds but was actually about 30 minutes. At one point, the creature pivoted on its tail, feeding in such slow circles that each of us had thrilling views of the entire animal, over and over again.

Chicken skin covered my body, and my contact lenses got sticky from staring. But I wasn’t afraid. Instead, every cell in my body was exquisitely attuned to the moment.

Floating face to face with this magnificent animal was an exceptional example of one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’m glad I can’t say no.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com