The Whale in the Water

The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.


Cerumen Core Archives

Blue whale
Credit: Denis Scott via NPR

A group of researchers recently published the interesting approach of examining a large plug of ear wax (cerumen) taken from a male blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) that had been hit by ship.

By analyzing the waxy layers built up over the whale’s life, which they compare to growth rings in trees, they came up with a lifetime profile of the chemicals to which the whale had been exposed, as well as a profile of its maturation process and stress levels. This particular earplug was 25.4 cm (10 inch) long, a lot of wax to examine.

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et al

Caption and credit: PNAS/Trumble et. al.

The team is encouraging the examination of archived ear wax plugs, some dating back to samples harvested from various whales in the 1950s, to create a multi-generational database that could be used to assess human impact on both the whales themselves, and on the marine environments where they live.

For me, the earplugs less resemble the growth rings on trees, and are more like the core samples taken to research glacial ice, or sediment or rock, for insight into historical composition. Except that with the whale’s waxy earplug, the core sample has been created naturally.

Gold core samples.

Gold core samples.

Humans have always liked to gather things, all manner of things. A bit like the proverbial magpie, but our interest isn’t limited to shiny objects.

I suppose what surprises me most about this story isn’t the innovative approach to marine research – it’s the fact that there are entire archives of whale ear wax plugs to which the new method can be applied.

Whale ear bones.

Whale ear bones.


PNAS paperBlue whale earplug reveals lifetime contaminant exposure and hormone profiles by S.J. Trumble, E.M. Robinson, M. Berman-Kowalewski, C.W. Potter & S. Usenko

GuardianExpress article – Blue Whale Ear Wax Shows Beast’s Hormone Profile by James Fenner

Going South

Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) Via:

I’ve been fortunate to have seen gray whales off the California coast. They are a majestic sight, even from a distance, when they make their annual migration along their regular route between northern feeding grounds and southern breeding havens.

There are currently two known populations of gray whales: One on the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean, a group that is estimated at around 22,000 individuals and migrates between Baja California and Alaska; the other a small group of around 130 that migrates along the western Pacific rim from northern Russia to somewhere Hainan Island off the Chinese coast. Gray whales used to populate the North Atlantic Ocean as well, but the population along the North American coast is assumed to have been hunted to extinction during the 18th century.

The existing populations haven’t experienced the kind of migration confusion suffered by some animals due temperature fluctuations and climate change. Until recently.

Over the past couple of years, two whales have been spotted in the Atlantic Ocean. One was seen off the coast of Israel. The other, last week, was photographed off the coast of Namibia – the first recorded image of a gray whale in the Southern Atlantic and in the Southern Hemisphere.

Graphic shows possible routes taken by the gray whale now off Namibia, and another that showed off Israel in 2010. Credit: Uko Gorter

Graphic shows possible routes taken by the gray whale now off Namibia,
and another that showed off Israel in 2010.
Credit: Uko Gorter

It is being speculated that the whale in Southern Atlantic waters likely got lost while feeding in the normally frozen Northwest Passage. Most of the discussion surrounding an ice-free Northwest Passage has focused on the viability of new shipping routes, the potential for resource exploitation, new areas for tourism. After all, the search for a northerly trading route was a major driver in sea exploration for centuries.

With the discovery of these lost whales, attention is beginning to focus on the changes this might bring to a wide variety of animal and plant species.

Possible Northwest Passage shipping routes Image: NASA

The Passage has been partially ice-free over the past four years, and it’s possible the Namibian gray whale just kept moving east until it reached the Atlantic. It seems unlikely that it will be able to return the way it came.

This is probably a sign of things to come. There will be the sudden disappearances, the animals and plants that find new territories. Some creatures will make unexpected appearances, some will get lost.

And some will just head south.

Gray whale off Namibia
Photo: John Paterson/Namibia Dolphin Project


Pete Thomas Outdoors article

Something Rich and Strange

Antarctic southern Minke whale fallPhoto: Natural Environment Research Council

Antarctic southern Minke whale fall
Photo: Natural Environment Research Council

Scientists exploring an undersea crater near the South Sandwich Islands have come across a whale skeleton, that of a southern Minke whale, a mile beneath the ocean’s surface near Antarctica. Finding a ‘whale fall’ is a rare enough occurrence, since whales sink to the ocean floor when they die (beached whales account for only an estimated 3% of whale deaths). For humans, finding a whale fall requires a large amount of undersea equipment and even more serendipity.

Whale carcasses provide a bounteous feast for other sea creatures wherever they land. From the quick and lithe scavengers, like sharks and hagfish, to the meticulous crabs,  to slower mollusks and crustaceans, to the thorough bacteria and bivalves, a whale can provide nutrition for up to a century. There are up to 30 species that are exclusive to whale falls. The newly-found Antarctic whale fall alone has revealed at least nine new species of tiny deep-sea creatures.

Where have humans found one of the largest whale falls? In Chile’s Atacama Desert, during the course of a 2011 highway expansion project. More than a kilometer from the ocean, road workers came across a mass graveyard with more than 75 fossilized whales and other creatures, including a tusked dolphin and an aquatic sloth. The site has been dated at between 2-7 million years old. Included among the many intact whale skeletons that were located directly next to one another was a single family group resting together, a sort of aquatic Pompeii scene.

It might be that sea scavengers are so plentiful that a body is quickly discovered, or that the detecting organs of whale fall species are extremely sensitive. Still, I found myself wondering why, if whale fall scavengers seem to be able to locate a feast, we have to simply stumble across them, either by sea or by land. There’s a fascination with what happens to the world’s largest animals when they die. Their fate after death remains almost as mysterious as their movements during life.

Atacama desert site Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr

Atacama desert  Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr


Original study published in Deep Sea Research Part IITopical Studies in Oceanography on The discovery of a natural whale fall in the Antarctic deep sea, by

  • D.J. Amon,
  • A.G. Glover,
  • H.Wiklund,
  • L. Marsh,
  • K. Linse,
  • A.D. Rogers,
  • J.T. Copley

Mother Nature Network article: Mysterious mass whale graveyard unearthed in the Chilean desert