Monday, February 28, 2011

Moon by Whale Light: Penguins

White Lanterns
The final chapter of The Moon by Whale Light, Diane Ackerman acquaints the reader with penguins. She begins her journey in San Diego, at the Penguin Encounter, or a quarantined area near there, where King penguin chicks of various ages are being reared. As a volunteer, she is able to get very close and interact with them. They have adopted the humans as their parents and as one passes by, the chicks vie for attention and food. Penguins have no land predators, and therefore no fear of humans. This makes them easy to study, weigh and measure, and apparently the king penguin chicks are the easiest of all.

In the wild the penguins would be in rookeries of about a hundred thousand, and parents and chicks would recognize one another only by their whistle. In the wild the penguin chicks would spend all their time perched on the feet of one of their parents. The ground is too cold for them to stand for long, and the chicks huddle against a warm brood patch on the parents belly, or when they are older, huddle together. This means that the captive penguins spend all their time wanting to be fed of cuddled.

Penguins are easy to anthropomorphize, as they walk upright and live in communities. They have a comical waddle that Ackerman compares to a human toddler's.

All Penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, on the Antarctic continent, or Sub Antarctic islands. They also live along the coasts of South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One species even lives near the Equator, on the Galapagos Islands.

Penguins have changed very little in 40 million years. They have had the same basic structure for a millennium. Flightless and a little clumsy on land, they spend much of their time in the water and show true proficiency when swimming. They are streamlined, agile and fast. Scientists are only able to study them during their short courtship and breeding seasons, but the majority of their time is spent in the water.

Ackerman also journeys to the South Pole in order to make her penguin experience complete. She takes a cruise ship with over one hundred tourists and a fair number of scientists and naturalists who are hitching a ride. They travel to various islands and observe the rookeries of several different species of penguins: Magellanic, Gentoo, Chinstrap, King and Macaroni penguins. They also see a juvenile Emperor penguin but they breed too far south for the tour to see them. They are also lucky enough to see different bird species such as albatross, skua, various petrels and terns and several species of seal including the leopard seal, the greatest predator of the penguins.

Such diversity of life for a continent that is often characterized as lifeless. The largest year round species in the Antarctic is the wingless fly, measuring in at half an inch. Yet there is a great abundance of life in the summer. Fertile waters are caused by the constant sun, creating blooms of plantlife. These in turn feed krill miniscule shrimplike invertebrates) which are eaten by fish, squid and penguins themselves. Penguins catch each krill individually, needing to catch one every six seconds to get enough food. In turn this system supports other birds, seals and whales.

Ackerman describes the otherworldly beauty of Antarctica and its subtle palette. She also delves into the politics that are both protecting the continent and threatening its natural resources. At the close of one expressive passage she describes the scene from the ship.
Apricot light spills over the distant snow-tipped mountains. Chunky
wedges of peppermint-blue ice drifted past us. Behind us, the Zodiak
left a frothy white petticoat. And farther beyond, shapes arched out
of the water-penguins feeding, oblivious to what we call beauty.

Photo by John Bentham

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Moon by Whale Light: Whales

Photo: Flip Nicklin, National Geographic.

The following video has very interesting audio, but no visuals. I suggest listening while reading this posting.

For the third chapter of Moon by Whale Light, Diane Ackerman spends her time with whales. To meet with Roger Payne she goes first to Hawaii to listen to Humpback whales singing and then to Patagonia to study Right Whales. It was Payne who discovered Whalesong in 1967 and he has been working on theories for its purpose ever since. But little is known and whales are very difficult to study. Various theories include singing for territorial designation or for attracting a mate. It is supposed that only male Whales sing, but it is not even known how they sing. the songs are monotonous over a period of time, but change from year to year with different sounds being exchanged for one another.

Humpback Whales are a migratory species, spending the summers in cold, nutrient rich waters and migrating to warmer waters to give birth. Because of the vastness of the oceans it is very difficult for scientists to track the movement of these and other whales. After giving birth the female will not be able to feed in the tropical waters, she must wait until her calf is mature enough to travel to feeding grounds in colder climes. The calf grows very quickly, nourished by her rich milk.

For a gallery of other photos and sounds Whale Trust is an excellent resource. They also publish some beautiful books.

Ackerman meets with Roger Payne again in Patagonia, a stopping point for the endangered Right Whale on its migration to feed in the waters off Antarctica. They stop along the coast to engage in courtship and raise their young. Ackerman joins Payne and other researchers at the rustic station that he has set up there overlooking two bays that are frequented by whales.

The Right Whale is a Baleen Whale or Mysticeti, like the Humpback. They have no teeth but hundreds of closely packed, springy baleen plates that they use to filter out small prey such as krill, plankton and small schooling fish. They also have two blow holes in the top of their heads. Toothed whales (Odonoceti) such as orcas, sperm whales and dolphins only have one and echolocate to find larger prey.
Southern Right Whale photographed by Brian Skerry.

Right Whales earned their name in a rather macabre way. They float when dead and where referred to as the 'right whale to kill' by early whalers. It is the rarest whale species, hunted almost to extinction. It is however a surface whale making it easier to study and observe. The mating of Right Whales is far more aggressive than other documented whale species. Little is known about the mating of other whales because it has not been seen. Right whale "courtship" takes place on the surface and is a riotous affair with several males to one female. The females breed every three to five years and the calves are weaned after 8 months to a year. Adolescent whales have been seen following mothers and calves and it is theorized that they may be from the previous breeding season.

Ackerman swims with a mother and calf and observes how gentle and calm they are in her presence. The young one swims very close to her but she does not touch it as it can be very dangerous to startle a whale. The calf weighs a metric ton and may not know its own strength. Casualties from Right whales have occurred when boats have been crushed accidentally by tails or fins. The following photograph by Brian Skerry for National Geographic illustrate how close one can get to these giants when careful.

For some other inspiring whale stories here are audio podcasts from Radiolab and Stuff You Missed in History.
The introduction to Radiolabs Animal Minds is a story about a rescued whale off the coast of San Francisco.

The post from Missed in History is the story of a Sperm Whale turning the tables on a whaling ship. And is available through Real-Life Moby Dick.