An interesting pair of articles in my morning scan of the papers. This:
…scientists concluded Wednesday that the baiji [the Yangtze dolphin], a freshwater dolphin that was one of the world’s oldest species, is almost certainly extinct.
Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday promised the strongest winds of change in two decades on the long-stalled drive to rescue environmentally ailing Puget Sound—work that could cost nearly $9 billion by 2020.
Now obviously, there are pretty big differences between the Yangtze Basin, home to 400 million people, and Puget Sound, which is home to fewer than 4 million. And, of course, there are huge differences in wealth too. Northwesterns have a lot more of it.
But the similarity between the two waters is striking:
The baiji, a beloved creature known as “the goddess of the Yangtze”… was once a common sight as it cavorted in the river.
Sounds a bit like our local charismatic megafauna, doesn’t it? Everyone loves our local black and white endangered “whales” that, scientifically speaking, are actually dolphins.
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More from China:
The researchers said they believed that it was the first time that a large-mammal species had been wiped out primarily by human-led destruction of its habitat. …the dolphins were killed by a combination of overfishing, habitat loss and collisions with ships.
Gregoire’s leadership and the state’s commitment to restoring Puget Sound is admirable. But there is a very real chance that residents will continue to lack the resolve necessary to stave off the steady destruction of our local marine ecology. Perserving the Sound’s species—the orcas, salmon, shellfish, and sea birds—will require us to make changes and also to spend money. But we do have a choice and we do have a chance.
In other news, researchers now believe that the Yangtze finless porpoise is about to follow its dolphin cousin into the abyss. The porpoise’s numbers have dwindled to 400, down from about 5,000 in the 1980s.
Any guesses how many orcas are left in Puget Sound? Once numbering several hundred, there are now 86.
A few weeks ago, while riding the ferryboat from Fauntleroy to Southworth, the captain announced that there were 4 “killer whales” swimming beside the ferry, about 50 feet away. They were so close that we could clearly see their black and white markings—and I’d never in my life seen a wild whale before! (My dad later told me that “killer whales” is a misnomer, since orcas actually belong to the porpoise family and not the whale family. But hey, I’d never seen a wild porpoise before, either!) Interestingly enough, we had only just pulled away from the Seattle ferrydock about 2 minutes earlier, so it was a bit of a shock to see the orcas swimming less than a mile offshore. Other passengers expressed concern about this close-to-shore proximity, too. This made me wonder: Is it really that unusual to see several orcas swimming so close to the Seattle shore? This was around 4:30 in the evening and the sun was just setting, so most likely they were foraging for food and maybe following a school of salmon. Perhaps, due to overfishing, the orcas are now forced to come so close to shore to find food? And perhaps that’s another reason why Northwest orcas are listed as having the highest PCB count in the world, since PCB’s are highly concentrated along the shore?
Been doing some research, trying to find the “true classification” of orcas since Eric calls them dolphins, my dad calls them porpoises, and the ferryboat captain calls them killer whales.Turns out they are all correct! The captain is probably referring to the order Cetacea which is originally derived from the Latin word cetus, meaning “large sea animal” in general, and which today is used scientifically for all classifications of whales.Eric and my dad are probably referring to the Cetacean sub-order of Odontoceti, meaning “toothed whales,” which includes dolphins and porpoises.So, I guess you could say that what we really saw on the evening of December 8, 2006 was a Cetacea-Odontoceti-Delphinidae-Orcinus!
Hmmm…Sorry about that!If your computer appears to be creating a huge blowhole in the middle of all that Latin, above, then try using the Refresh button, and hopefully the text will resurface for air!
Just wanting to add some clarification, since, in my attempt to be brief on this blog, I may have inadvertently squeezed some details together, making it sound like we were at “Seaworld” rather than in Puget Sound.These were wild and free orcas! So, even when they were swimming relatively close to the ferry, there were still several hundred feet—nay, yards!—between them all. And, you never knew when or where they would re-emerge as they swam gracefully by.Totally awesome! And definitely worth cleaning up Puget Sound and preserving our natural heritage for.
OK, one last clarification.As this brief synopsis shows, nature, unpredictable and free, doesn’t always come neatly wrapped in packages that make it easy to describe!And when one is totally caught up in the moment of being side by side with a magnificent killer whale that’s going one way while the ferryboat is going the other, one isn’t thinking in cold scientific terms of names and exact distances.All one is thinking is, “Oh my God! That’s a living, breathing, swimming and diving, huge whale! Hallelujah!”And it’s only after the event has passed that one then tries to unwrap the story in rationally describable terms. So, in one last attempt to try and find the balance between the poetic moment and precise words, the orca that we saw swimming closest to the ferry did indeed seem to be about 50 feet away, while the furthest one seemed to be about 300 feet away. And regarding the distances between them, in football field terms they seemed to be many fields apart….Now I think I need to go brush up on my first-person narration skills, if I ever want to try and convey an awesome story like this again. Sightline makes it looks so easy! 🙂
P.S. Moving forward with some interesting scientific facts that I’ve just learned:According to research prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service, it’s possible that these killer whales were transients (PDF). This would help explain why we saw them swimming so close to shore, since, some groups of transient killer whales spend “most of their time foraging in shallow waters close to shore” (see page 38, Transients).
Eureka! After combing the web for hours, I’ve finally found a simple explanation as to why these killer whales were so spread out:”Killer whales bunch together when they socialize or rest….They spread out to find food.” (Italics added.)And, for a great overview of killer whales and the differences between transients and residents, I also found this.
P.P.S. Just in case there might be any question, I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I deeply respect Sightline Institute. (Why else would I be so concerned whenever they mis-connect a link?) And I think Eric de Place makes a great point about science here:“…[T]he thing about science is this: it’s not a matter of personal opinion or personal belief (or free speech or freedom of religion, for that matter). Science is based on emperical evidence and on theories that are carefully constructed from that evidence. And the theories are vetted extensively by other scientists.”Now, obviously, I’m not a scientist. But like a scientist, I am a person who wants to understand the world and who wants to be able to describe it in rationally descriptive terms.Therefore, what I’ve learned from this blogstring, is that when I tried to “squish” this awesome moving-picture encounter of the orcas into a single and brief “snapshot,” misunderstandings may have unintentionally arisen.So, I will continue to read Sightline’s materials and weblog with interest, and learn how to be a better scientist!
BTW, by “moving-picture,” I didn’t mean that this experience was from a video! I was simply trying to find words consistent with the “snapshot” metaphore…Sheesh, it’s hard to be a poetic scientist!