Monday, November 28, 2011

Swim For Your Life

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends regular exercise for women during pregnancy, including running. Some pregnant women have even been known to run marathons while in their third semester. However because the strain that extreme exercise places on the mother and her unborn child, some OB/GYNs recommend swimming rather than running as a way for pregnant women to stay in shape. Regardless of whether a human female chooses to run or swim, at least she never has to face what her Bottlenose Dolphin counterpart does, where extreme exertion can literally mean the difference between life and death.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, and reported by Victoria Gill, a science reporter for BBC Nature, pregnant Bottlenose Dolphins have their top swimming speed cut nearly in half. The research states that while a non-pregnant dolphin can swim at more than 14mph, late in their twelve month pregnancy this is reduced to 8mph.

It should be noted that according to other expert sources, the top speed of Bottlenose Dolphins is estimated to be 20mph; however, the reduction in swimming speed cited in the JEB study likely holds true. And the brutal significance of this fact is starkly evident when you consider that the three main predators of Bottlenose Dolphins, namely, Transient Orcas, Great White Sharks, and Tiger Sharks, can swim at least as fast as a non-pregnant dolphin, and in the case of Orcas, much, much faster (32mph).

Thus, while it is generally considered a good thing for a human female who runs regularly to slow her pace during pregnancy, just the opposite is true for her dolphin counterpart. So to all Bottlenose Dolphin mothers-to-be, we say swim, lady swim...for your life!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Orcas On Vacation

Each winter millions of human beings migrate to warmer climes; some to seek a brief respite from the pressures of everyday life back home; others to indulge the senses with food, drink, and companionship; and most just to sit under a warm sun and vegetate. This latter activity invariably ends up with painful sunburns and peeling skin; an unwelcome consequence of too much of a good thing done too fast. But to the Killer Whales who spend most of their lives in the frigid waters off Antarctica shedding their skin is precisely what they seek when they too leave winter far behind.

According to a study reported in ScienceDaily*, one type of Orcas regularly travel from the Southern Ocean to the tropical waters off South America. It seems that living in those icy polar seas contributes to the growth of yellowish algae on their skin, and the Orcas' migration north helps rid them of their old skin and with it the algae. What is even more remarkable is that like their human counterparts, these trips are relatively brief. One Orca was monitored taking the 5,000 mile return trip in just 42 days. (Of course very few of us ever get a 6 week vacation, unless you live in France that is).

So the next time you find yourself sitting on some sunny, pristine beach shedding your skin just think, out there beyond the thin blue line that separates our world from theirs, there may be some big black and white member of the dolphin family doing exactly the same thing.

* J.W. Durban, R. L. Pitman. Antarctic killer whales make rapid, round-trip movements to subtropical waters: evidence for physiological maintenance migrations? Biology Letters, 2011: DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0875

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Shadow Over Switzerland

Switzerland has had a long history of neutrality in times of conflict. It has not entered an international war since 1815. Its government is actively involved in peace keeping missions around the globe, and it is the birthplace of the Red Cross. And yet with such an impressive record of non-aggression against humankind, it is hard to understand how the Swiss government, and the Swiss people, can allow the inhumane treatment of another species that comes closest to man in terms of intelligence, sentience, and non-aggression; the dolphin.

Two hours by train outside Basel is a fun park called Conny Land that boasts of having Europe's finest open-air dolphin lagoon. Claiming to offer fun and entertainment for the whole family, the park's owners fail to mention that over the past three years seven of their dolphins have died; and the circumstances of the most recent death are particularly distressing. Over the objections of German animal activist organizations, ProWal, and The Whale and Dolphin Protection Society, the owners of the park allowed a two-day techno rave to be put on within yards of the dolphin lagoon. Animal experts believe this resulted in the death of an eight year old dolphin that had been healthy up until the rave. It also likely caused unknown and unknowable distress to the other dolphins in the lagoon.

Certainly the veterinarian and trainers at the park know that dolphins have particularly acute hearing; not only through their internal ears but also via their complex echolocation capability. And yet they allowed the rave to take place anyway. ProWal recorded noise levels of over 100 decibels outside the park; clearly beside to the lagoon it would have been much louder. Moreover, sound travels 4.5 times faster under water than in air, so for two days these poor creatures were subjected to what for us would be like standing beside a roaring jet engine for 48 hours.

Such cruel disregard for the dolphins' well-being goes beyond the pale and the Swiss people should be ashamed. Ironically, the name that had been given to the dolphin that died was Shadow; and that is exactly what has fallen over that otherwise peace-loving nation.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Jona and the Whale

No. That's not a typo. I'm not sure what the female version of the name 'Jonah' is so dropping the 'h' will have to do. Most of you are familiar with the bible story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

"Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah..."
Jonah 1:17 King James Bible

Well, last week off Santa Cruz, California, a bikini clad woman on a surfboard and several kayakers came close to acting out the bible story, when two feeding Humpback Whales shot up out of the water, mouths agape, mere yards away from them. (If you haven't seen it on YouTube, go and view it). Setting aside the fact that the woman and her fellow gawkers were violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, had the whales been any closer the consequences could have been deadly. Unlike Jonah who apparently survived his ordeal, had the woman been knocked off her surfboard and swallowed it is unlikely she would have survived.

Humpback Whales do not eat humans (no whales or dolphins do), but with an enormous mouth that can hold 500 gallons of water and 400 fingernail-like baleen plates hanging from the upper jaw that strain thousands of pounds of krill with each gulp, she would have met a terrifying death. Hopefully, she and her boating companions have learned a lesson and will stay away from whales in the future. Arguably the worst part of this story is that the whale would probably have died too, with the body of a stupid human being stuck in his throat.