Cecils of the Sea

Capture There’s a lot in the media at the moment about Cecil – Zimbabwe’s most famous lion – who was killed in a “trophy hunt” this month. (If you tell me you haven’t heard the name Walter Palmer or seen that nausea-inducing white grin I’m going to assume you’re a hermit). But if we think about it, as tragic as it may be, the barbaric act of one rich American tourist is shining the spotlight on animal conservation issues across the globe… maybe we can use it to change things for the better?

Humans have always hunted animals. Initially out of necessity, (I’m thinking a caveman and the odd woolly mammoth here) but then mankind got cocky: hunting became industrial and nature was knocked out of balance.

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The Whaling Industry like trophy hunts, made big money: it’s been said that during the 18th century whale oil was equivalent to petrol, and baleen to plastic – that’s how dependent we were on Whale Hunting.

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Soap, candles and corsets were among the products we all depended on Whaling for in the 19th Century

Whales and the oil-rich Sperm whale in particular, lit up streets and clothed women – and Whalers were heroes. Young men were drawn in by tales of sailing to exotic corners of the earth and battling gigantic beasts.

But when they finally bore witness to the gruesome process of slaughtering and processing these beautiful creatures, they were often appalled. There are heart-breaking records of orphaned calves nudging the sides of a whaling ships while the crew was carving up its mother’s body on board – many whalers actually gave up their careers after witnessing such cruelty (the calf would almost certainly die shortly afterwards without its mothers milk to sustain it). Once on dry land sailors suffered nightmares – reliving the horror of having to deal repeated jabs to a whales side, until the animal sustained so many internal punctures that it drowned in its own blood.

“The Death Flurry” by Sir Oswald Brierly, painted in the 1840s

“The Death Flurry” by Sir Oswald Brierly, painted in the 1840s, shows the killing of a Right Whale

In the absence of Sperm Whales hunters would happily take a harvest of Right Whales – so called as it was considered the “right” whale to catch due to its high blubber content and its tendency to spend a lot of time at the surface close to land, therefore they were easy to reach and would float once killed. Too easy.

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A ‘prize’ catch – a Right Whale caught and killed in 18th Century America

So in my opinion the hunters of yesterday could be forgiven for their part in this grizzly industry. After all, when it all began whales were relatively plentiful and the human race was dependent on the products they provided (an entirely different scenario to the needlessly bloodthirsty Dr Palmer). But the Whaler’s mixture of greed and ignorance took its toll – Whale numbers dwindled and the 1930’s they were noticeably absent from oceans that were once hugely profitable. Thankfully, protection was put in place as we began to recognise the consequences of our actions, and the Industry gave way to newer, man-made materials.  Despite this, countries such as Japan and the Faeroe Islands continue to hunt and kill whales to this day.

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A Minke whale and it’s one year old calf being taken on board a Japanese whale boat, and a pod of pilot whales after the annual slaughter on the Faeroe Islands

But as much as I am up for forgiving yesterday’s Whalers, I am wholly against forgetting their destructive legacy. This is a prime opportunity for mankind to learn from past mistakes! The damage caused is still tangible today; North Atlantic Right Whales were the first to be afforded protection from hunting, yet their numbers have never recovered. The characteristics that made them prime targets for Whalers are the same ones hindering their recovery – Right Whales like to ‘hug’ the coast and tend to frequent the shallows in areas which have now become busy shipping routes, consequently 60% of Right Whales monitored have been struck by vessels or tangled in fishing lines at some point.

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A Right Whale calf breaching

The worry is that the amount of animals left provide such a restricted breeding pool that the future of the entire species is under threat – only eight distinct genetic lines remain, so every breeding female killed by vessel strikes or entanglement is a huge loss.

So while the world is off vilifying Dr Palmer, why not do something positive and set yourself apart from him? One way is to try and reverse the damage to Right Whales; Dr Charles ‘Stormy’ Mayo (what a name…) is a world-renowned Right Whale researcher at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies – their response team has rescued hundreds of whales from entanglement while teaching others to do the same all over the world, and is constantly in need of donations and volunteers. And there’s an eerie similarity between today’s conservationists and yesterday’s hunters: just as sailors were tethered to their prey by harpoons, the researchers of Cape Cod are often dragged along by an entangled whale in their bid to free it.

Fancy a trip to Cape cod? Got a spare fiver? Give their site a visit and see how you can get involved! Humans hunted Right Whales to brink of extinction, but its not too late to help them recover.

N.B. Controversial Captain Paul Watson of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd fame wrote an article last week expressing a similar view… but was (typically) much less diplomatic 😛

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London’s Blue Whale and all his sneaky secrets

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OK, I’m getting itchy feet. Don’t get me wrong – I’m lucky at the moment to have a comfortable job and decent income and mum and dad on hand to provide roast dinners every Sunday, but filing paperwork doesn’t compare to patrolling the Atlantic for sea creatures on a daily basis! So, I try to get away whenever I can…

This week I took a jaunt down to London Town and spent a few days enjoying the perks of being a young professional – a spot of cricket, lounging in sunny Battersea Park, and strolling around the wonderful Natural History Museum! Lots of my friends have migrated down here so we all visit London quite often, and I always make a point of dragging someone to the Museum. I honestly think you could spend days in there and still want to see more of it!

nhmThe building is a marvel in itself, every inch is carved stone archways and meticulously painted ceiling. When you step into Hintz Hall, (the huge entrance chamber), you’re greeted by the imposing cast of a diplodocus skeleton. This guy has become an infamous symbol for the museum itself and is often surrounded by a crowd of chattering school children enthused by his scale and charisma to rush in and discover more of the same. At the top of the staircase is a beautiful marble statue of Charles Darwin presiding over the entrance like a proud father, as if admiring the scientific advances mankind has made since his famous discovery. (I bloomin’ love it, if you couldn’t tell)

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My very best mates posing with my idol

My very best mates posing with my idol 🙂

Once I’ve stopped gushing about my hero to anyone unfortunate enough to be standing nearby, I normally head upstairs. Cut through “The Vault” where genuine specimens of an Archeopteryx fossil, Darwin’s fancy pigeons and a rare first edition of The Origin Of Species (!) sit in pristine glass cases, and come out through a corridor of stuffed mammals to enter the my favourite exhibit; the Whale Hall.

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It was actually meant to be built way back in 1914, but the First World War put a pause on the big plan. Originally the hall’s the centerpiece – a huuuuuuuuuuuge blue whale – was going to be made from the cast of a real whale that was killed in Norway. Unfortunately (and a bit revoltingly) the body completely deflated and they obviously couldn’t take a mould of a whale that was flat as a pancake, so the whale that’s on display now is a scale model. The construction was so long and arduous that the artists and builders took 4 years to complete him! But the best fact that I’ve come across is that the artists and workmen had a secret way of treating themselves during the four year construction job… they left a trapdoor into the whales stomach so that they could sneak in and enjoy secret tea and cigarette breaks!

Now it is flanked by skeletons and life sized models of both baleen whales and odotontecetes (the former are ‘filter feeding’ whales like humpbacks, the latter have teeth like Orcas). There are also tonnes of interactive displays about different cetaceans and their lifestyles. Its great fun 🙂

If you head to the balcony around the edge of the room you can peer down on the huge display, with all the smaller animals seeming to explode up from behind their glorious leader – Mr Blue Whale himself. If you ever find yourself at his enormous rear end, take a second to admire the huge tail spreading out below; you might notice a few coins that people have chucked off the balcony to make a wish. The story goes that this tradition was started by some cheeky guards who encouraged people to throw down their money, then collected it at the end of the evening and went to the pub! Nowadays there is a huge sign asking people not to throw anything in case they damage the historical model, but some visitors ignore it and allow themselves a wish on the whales tail.

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P.S. ….just a quick heads up: The Natural History Museum in London is planning to moving their magnificent Blue Whale skeleton into Dippy the diplodicus’ prime position – visitors will be greeted by the whale in the entrance hall from summer 2017! Curators are hoping that the huge mammal’s figure will remind people of the scale of the responsibility that we all share in caring for the planet.

Ahoy Landlubbers! Mine’s a cappuccino.

imageI don’t know about you, but I cant help but walk past trendy coffee shops and judge aaaall the people sitting in the window, you know, the beautiful boys and girls chugging organic skinny soya bean flat whites while “working” on their laptops, a.k.a. taking advantage of the free Wifi and posing with their new *insert generic trendy computer/tablet here*. Maybe they’re instagramming a picture of their take-away cup? “Look how they spelt Elijah! HA HA HA they missed off the ‘h’! IDIOTS”. Maybe they’re tweeting a selfie with a pumpkin spiced latte and an earlybird filter? “Love xmas, love my girls!”. Eugh.

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Well, this week I found myself on the other side of the glass, panicking that I would accidentally order the uncoolest drink ever and everyone would laugh at my bad taste, and praying that nobody I knew would walk by, but secretly enjoying every minute and feeling incredibly cool and important…

Its been a hectic week – I know thats no excuse, but humour me for a second: Me and my family are going away for Christmas for the first time (flick back to the last few paragraphs of “The Bucket List” for clues as to where…or just wait til my next post cz I’m sure to be bragging), so on top of essentials like packing and pampering myself to ensure that I look dead glam on my trip, I’ve also had to a) get a temporary office job to save up, b) see all my friends and relatives to wish happy christmases left right and centre, and c) actually buy christmas prezzies before the 24th of December this year! So yes, I used my last full day in the country to combine shopping with working on a blog post, and yes, it happened to be in a Starbucks.

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I was inwardly cringing so so much when I fisrt sat down, but once I got my notebook and pens out, (along with my rolled organic oats and acai berry granola with fat free greek natural biotic bionic bacterium yoghurt), I gradually felt my perception of the situation changing – do I actually look quite cool here?! I had to admit, there was something ever so nice about sitting inside a starbucks watching the world go by and looking all important while you type away, all snuggly with a delicious hot drink 🙂 I was definitely in danger of becoming a regular Starbucks Poser – so I text my friend straight away to bring me back down to earth. He did the trick:

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But in a round about way, this brings me quite nicely to the subject of this weeks blog! Would you look at that! Almost like I planned it or something.

So I recently read that Starbucks has its roots in the American whaling industry! I’ve been pondering, as I often do, the many effects that Whales have had on this world, and I made this latest discovery while flicking through my copy of “Leviathan, or The Whale” by Philip Hoare – great book, great read, won prizes and all sorts, cant recommend it enough. In the 1830s the Whaling Industry was positively booming, so much so that the island of Nantucket became one of the most glamorous destinations in the country. The proserous port was home to Joseph Starbuck, a Whaling pioneer and accidental real estate expert. He became most famous not for his hunting exploits, but for his strange and futuristic new-build houses, the most notable are “The Three Bricks”, three identical red-brick houses that he had built for his sons.

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“The Three Bricks” – Joseph Starbuck’s famous houses on Nantucket

Before Joseph there had been Valentine Starbuck, responsible for captaining the Aigle, a British whaling boat hunting in the pacific in the early 1800s. Valentine didn’t have a great time – his boat was chartered by the King and Queen of Hawaii for an official trip to London, and on the way Valentine got terribly excited when he thought he’d found himself an undiscovered island – only to find that his cousin Obed Starbuck  had seen it a couple of years ealier while captaining the Hero (Obed wanted to call it Hero Island, but they both settled on Starbuck island). Soon after Valentine eventually dropped the Hawiian royal family off in LDN they helpfully died of the measles, and his company promptly sued him. Poor Valentine.

Fast forward a couple of years and Herman Melville, writing his epic novel Moby Dick, is inspired by this famous whaling family to name one of his integral characters, the Quaker first mate, “Starbuck”. Fast forward a few more years and the founders of this infamous coffee shop are fighting over what to call their new venture. After vetoing the name of the vessel in Moby Dick – “Pequod” (can you blame them?) they settle for Captain Ahab’s right hand man, and “Starbuck’s” is born. The two-tailed mermaid smiling on every mug was a mascot for the sailors themselves, and a fitting tribute to Nantucket – the island shaped like a whale that made a fortune from them.

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Yep, you heard right, the Starbucks had a role to play in the bad old days of the British and American whaling industry, and pretty big one at that! So thats a good enough excuse for me to go back every week to blog right? Yeah, it would be rude not to really.

What does Hugo know anyway.

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Greenpeace vs Sea Shepherd

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Tonight I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of twitter. I realised I’ve been neglecting it a little since I moved home, so this evening I planned on hashtagging my heart out and tweeting as many minor celebs as I dare. That was the intention anyway…but while exploring the twittersphere I came across two pages that looked really promising, and got a little side tracked – those pages were Greenpeace, and Captain Paul Watson.

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Now obviously as a marine mammal enthusiast I merrily followed both of the above, then something hit me – I may have committed a serious error here…because the two of them absolutely hate each other!

Well, I had to have a quiet word with myself after this revelation: Charlotte, you are mortifying – what if they see I’ve “followed” their mortal enemy? I’ll never be bezzies with the rainbow warriors of the Greenpeace camp, and I’ll never crusade through the southern ocean on the “bob barker” or the “steve Irwin” of the sea shepherd camp! As a cool, hip, and dare I say, sassy young  tweeter/blogger I will inevitably be approached by these monsters of conservation some day. WHAT HAVE I DONE?

To help you absorb the full gravitas of my pickle, here is some background to the two parties:

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Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

For those for you who aren’t familiar with Cpt Paul, get your google hat on and try streaming an ep of Whale Wars. Paul Watson may look a chubby, bearded, Father Christmas-esque fellow, but this guy is a right character and pretty ruthless when it comes to the protecting whales. The controversial figurehead of Sea Shepherd and one-man pain-in-the-bum to the Japanese whaling industry, he would literally rather throw members of his crew at harpoon ships than see them free to chase a whale.

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“Whale Wars” – so good its been featured on South Park!

But he wasn’t always this ruthless independent leader. From 1970 to 1977 he was a loyal collaborator with lots of other peaceful protestors, and he’s credited with being a founding member of the world-leading conservation charity, Greenpeace.

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Greenpeace – famous for their “Save the Whale” Project. As an active conservation charity, they have always emphasised the power of peaceful protests, and stick to media-based activity to get the public on board and change the world’s opinion of damaging activities.Their belief in the power of images has served them well in the past, and some of the most iconic environmental photographs were captured by Greenpeace volunteers, effectively spreading the word about the devastating human impact on the earth.

Crews of Greenpeace ships MY Arctic Sunrise and the MY Esperanza crew uses their bodies to write "Help End Whaling !" on the ice of Antarctica, after completing a 2 month campaign against the whaling fleet of Japan . Southern Ocean, 20.01.2006

So what’s the beef here? It all boils down to a clash of tactics. In 1977 Watson was unceremoniously kicked out of Greenpeace, voted out by 11 to 1 (the member casting the one vote to keep him in? Cpt Paul Watson of course) from the charity’s board. The actual goings on are very unclear and shrouded in secrecy, but Greenpeace basically claim that Watson was headstrong, arrogant, and too keen to push himself into the spotlight, while Captain Watson stands by the argument that you can’t change the world without making a few enemies, and Greenpeace are a bunch of pansies that will never get anything done.

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Greenpeace co-founders Paul Watson and Bob Hunter before the fall out in the 1970s

Watson seemed in no way deterred by this little career blip (and to some extent, character assisanation…). Far from sinking into the conservation wilderness, he bucked up his ideas and set up his rival campaign!

To this day Captain Paul remains convinced that invasive action is the only way to get things done, and “Sea Shepherd”, his pride and joy, puts all its energy and resources into shutting down the south sea whaling industry. Whale Wars follows the Sea Shepherd ships and volunteers to the unforgiving antarctic waters, where they prop foul, night raid, and chase the rival ships of the whaling fleet for up to 5 months at a time! They’ve been criticised for their cavalier attitude to volunteers safety, and their sometimes highly illegal tactics, but they make excellent viewing and to their credit they have brought an early end to the whale hunting season more than once. It’s a 5 series show, proper edge of the seat stuff and an absolute health and safety nightmare (which  nowadays, is actually very refreshing!)

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The 5 season series of whale wars, available on Animal Planet, follows the Sea Shepherd’s volunteer crew to the Antarctic whaling grounds

So what do I do? Do I continue taking an interest in both the peaceful and the vigilante side of marine mammal conservation? Or do I have to pick a team? And which team should I pick? Oh god, its too hard. I suppose the only thing to do is carry on sneakily stalking both parties, and then swear allegiance to whichever eventually tries to recruit me, convincing them that I only followed their rival for inside information with which to take them down…

N.B. All comments from the authour referring to her hip-ness, her sassiness, and her inevitable recruitment to Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd, should be taken as entirely sarcastic.

N.N.B. Dear Greenpeace – I never liked Paul.

N.N.N.B. Dear Captain Watson – I never liked the Greenpansies.

London’s Whales & Wars

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The Bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames River and past the Houses of Parliament in 2006

This week I was lucky enough to visit the great city of London, capital of England and a place filled with a rich history of man’s relationship with whales! The links with this great city and the whaling industry run deep: there once was a time when every street lamp was fuelled by sperm whale oil, the ladies of London wore whale bone corsets, and the city was once the main port to 72 whaling vessels, some weighing as much as 500 tonnes! Even recently the city came into contact with a whale again, the tragic case of the northern bottlenose whale that made its way up the river Thames and didn’t survive the rescue mission, back in 2006.
The first mention of London’s encounter with the mythical whale comes courtesy of a 17th century gent named John Evelyn, he wrote:

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John Evelyn and his famous 17th Century diary

“a large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich….it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which spouted blood…..and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died”

Evelyn and the “infinite” crowds drawn to the stranded whale were clearly very excited by this visitor, and based on the vivid description of the anatomy of the animal scientists have concluded must have been a Northern Atlantic Right Whale. In 2010 the body of a whale was excavated from Greenwich and is believed to be the same animal, discovered 365 years later!

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The Northern Right Whale skeleton thought to be the same animal mentioned in Evelyn’s diary, 3rd of June 1658

The whaling industry boomed in London throughout the 17th century, but eventually it petered out due to the crafty Dutch fleet outcompeting the brits, and gradually supply and demand dwindled away in the city – the last sperm oil cargoes landed in London in 1859.

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Whaling fleets at the Greenland Dock in the 17th Century

Shortly after the industry powered down whales found themselves at the heart of London for a different reason. The Natural History Museum was founded in 1881, and is my absolute favourite day out in LDN – honestly I can’t recommend it enough, you could spend every day of the week in that place and still need to see more of it! Nowadays visitors are greeted by the huuuuuuge diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall, but 100 years ago it was a sperm whale specimen (guarded by the best example of an old-fashioned English policeman I’ve ever seen) that welcomed everyone in.

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The big blue whale is signposted all the way through the building, and it stands in a hall dedicated to marine mammals, designed in 1914 by the museum’s director Sidney Harmer. But the building of the Whale Hall was postponed when the First World War broke out, so many of the men that should have been involved in its construction fought and died for our country. Harmer didn’t return to his design until 1923.

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The Blue Whale model in the Natural History Museum’s Whale Hall, South Kensington, London

The links between the famous blue whale model and the World Wars are difficult to ignore today, just minutes away from the 100th anniversary of the Great War. It was built in the hall, with workers taking their tea breaks inside the structure, and was completed on the eve of World War II in December 1938. A handful of ‘coins of the realm’ and a telephone directory were sealed inside as a kind of peace-time time capsule, and still lie inside the whale to this day.

tower o londonI also made the obligatory visit to the poppy exhibit at the tower of London on my trip, a beautiful and fitting tribute to the many brave souls who fought and died for our freedom.

So next time you visit the big smoke, take a minute to admire London’s blue whale. It’s links with the capital are as intriguing as they are poignant, and it has come to represent the loss of men as much as the lives of the London’s harvested whales.

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It’s Halloween underwater too!

 

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Oi oi, it’s that time of year again – lets dress funny and get drunk! (or get free sweets, depending on your age/priorities)

Shalloween7eeing as the underwater world can be a pretty scary place, I think there’s definitely some material here for a marine-themed halloween party.  This week I’ve trawled the internet (and done some experimental pumpkin carving) to come up with a list of all things halloweeny AND mariney. So if you’re ever inclined to have an underwater-themed party, hit me up for some incredibly cool ideas…

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Its simply not a party without some themed snacks and decorations, and there’s a surprising amount of people that have given this a lot of thought…luckily for me 😉

To ensure that all the neighbours kids love you,  hand out incredibly healthy banana & grape dolphin treats instead of sweets

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Killer whale party hats (essential)

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 Chips and dips for the party? Don’t forget the pepper octopus…

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 …and the hotdog ocotpi

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 And stick some whales in jelly while you’re at it

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Loadsa party cups? Make a little coral table piece!

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Voila! The party is good to go! Now you need to lead by example and really embrace that theme, so here are some of the best costumes I came across:

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halloween6A Narwhal
halloween1Another (quite political) Narwhal

And for those of you who like dressing to impress on Halloween, here are two outfits that were advertised as “Sexy Dolphin Fish Animal Costume”… because dolphins are particularly sexy fish animals:

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Something else I came across this week are the alternative pumpkin designs out there! Fancy carving an Orca pumpkin? Or turning your pumpkin into a big whale complete with tail and blow hole? Go for it!

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So that’s it, there’s now no excuse not to have a marine mammal-themed Halloween! I’ll certainly be rocking around London this friday in a home made humpback costume…maybe

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Consider the Hippo

Evolution – pretty cool agreed? (just as a side note, if you don’t agree you’re probably on the wrong blog…) It’s bonkers to think that humans are related to chimpanzees, reptiles are related to birds, and even that whales & dolphins definitely AREN’T related to fish!

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Darwin’s first sketch of a ‘tree of life’ from his notebook on board the Beagle.

Ever since Charles Darwin (hero) had his famous light bulb moment, and scribbled out a little branched diagram next to the words “I think”, scientists have set about piecing together the evolutionary history of animals.

The first important step came in 1861 when ‘The Missing Link’ was discovered – Archaeopteryx, the feathered lizard. Because this was the first fossil showing an animal that had a foot in both camps (the bird family and the reptile family), it was taken as proof that evolution must be the system that gives us animals perfectly adapted to their modern-day environments.

The evolutionary story of whales goes something like this –

  • there once was a group of animals called Mesonychids. They were furry with four legs and a tail, and looked a lot like a wolves, but they had hooves. They lived in swampy areas in the Tethys Sea (modern day Mediterranean), and spent most of their days paddling around and eating little fishies.
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Pakicetus: a member of the Mesonychid family

  • Gradually the mesonychids relied more and more on their swimming skills, until they spent so much time foraging underwater that their bodies began to change. They got longer and thinner so that they would be more streamlined. Their front legs got flatter so they could be used as paddles, and their useless back legs started to shrink. Their tails became wider and stronger to help push through the water. They swapped insulating fur for insulating fat. And finally, their nostrils moved to the very tops of their heads to make breathing at the surface easier.ambulo
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The Ambulocetus (above) and Rodhocetus (below)

  • That way, about 50 million years ago, we ended up the first ancient animal that looks anything like a whale – the Archaeocete. They were nearly there, much better adapted to life underwater than the mesonychid, but not yet perfect: it’s thought that they still had little back legs, and they might even have climbed back onto land to breed, like seals do.
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The Archaeocete: 50 million years ago

  • About 25-30 million years ago, they split into Odontocetes, (toothed whales like orcas and dolphins), and Mysticetes, (baleen whales that filter feed on tiny animals, like blue whales and humpback whales). By about 5 million years ago, all of the whales and dolphins you can see today had arrived.
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The split between toothed whales and baleen whales happened about 25 million years ago

For some mysterious reason, Archaeocetes (and all of the other forms of primitive whales between them and present day whales) died out, leaving us with only tiny fragments of bones, fossils, and the glorious Hippopotamus, as clues about how whales got here.

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Only hippos, odontocetes and mysticetes survive


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So, Hippos: They’re big and fat and they’re often found underwater. That’s pretty much where the similarity to whales ends – but they’re actually really closely related. Scientists reckon that Mesonychids, that wolf thing with hooves, evolved from a hippo-like animal back in the day (in this case, back in the day is 60 million years ago). So out of all the land mammals in the world, the hippo is most closely related to the whale!

By watching hippos you can find all sorts of clues that tell the evolutionary stories of their distant relations, but the one that I found most intriguing is the story of how they became underwater communications experts:

Sound travels much, much further than light does underwater, so whales and dolphins have to rely almost entirely on noises to communicate and to find their way around, a bit like bats do. That’s why they’re so well known for chatting away with clicks and whistles, and even ‘singing’ to each other over massive distances.

To be honest, singing and clicking is just a scratch on the surface of this fascinating (and noisy) underwater world. There’s the fact that sounds let these incredible mammals ‘see’ their surroundings even at depths where only 1% of sunlight reaches them, there’s the ‘names’ dolphins learn for each other and can remember for decades, there’s the secret deep-water layer that sperm whales use as a kind of message carrier… but I’ll save all that for another week. To satisfy you in the meantime, here’s my mate Dory showing you how to speak whale.

The point I’m trying to make is this: if you’re a whale, sound is really really important! So it completely makes sense that the communications system we see in whales today was being tested out way before they became fully formed animals – and a rudimentary version of it can be found in hippos.

Scientists in Africa have found out that Hippos are the only animals in the world that communicate to each other both above and below the water. They’ve used underwater microphones (called hydrophones) to record these underwater hippo conversations, and they’ve found that the topics covered range from “excuse me sir, this is my bit of river” to “hello pretty lady” and to a lesser extent, “anybody want a peanut?”

*DISCLAIMER* Obviously, hippos don’t go around offering each other peanuts, but how good is that film?! And isn’t that exactly what a hippo would sound like?!

If you’re going to try and make as much noise as possible through water, its easier if you’re an animal with a fat face. Fat is all liquidy, so its similar to the environment you’re sending your sound waves out into. This means you don’t have to waste energy turning the sound into a different form before it goes off to find the nearest ear. Humans live in air, so we produce sound using air over our vocal chords before we send it out through our mouths – see? Same thing. Hippos are generally quite fat animals (ooooh whattabitch!), and its been discovered that Bull hippos use their fatty double chins as a kind of transmitter, so they can send sexy throat gargles to lady hippos even from the bottom of a river.

Hippopotamus

It would seem that this is a kind of ancient prototype for the cetacean communication system used today! The difference is that porpoises and dolphins have fatty foreheads instead of chins, and they produce noises using what used to be their noses rather than in their throats. It’s a much more sophisticated system; their foreheads contain a specially designed organ called the ‘melon’ – a fat filled sack that acts like a lens. It can be spread out or pushed together which helps focus noises in different directions.

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In odontocetes, sound waves are produced by the phonic lips and sent out through the fatty melon

The sounds that cetaceans produce are now much more varied and complicated than hippos can make. They originate from an organ called a “monkey muzzle”, (or the much less fun sounding “phonic lips”), inside their heads that developed from nose parts. It’s a narrow passage containing two membranes, just like our nasal passages, which can be sucked in and slapped together to make sound.


Hippos are probably up there with one of my favourite animals; they look hilarious, but they’re all mysterious and dangerous too (a Hippo once ate my granddad’s best mate – true story…) and have you ever seen a baby hippo? Almost too cute. So learning about the links between them and cetaceans has been a real treat – something I could have researched and written about for much longer! But I’m trying to cut down what has become a very wordy blog. So for now, this is all you’re getting 😉

See ya

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N.B. Anyone interested in finding out more on this subject can find looooads of cool stuff here and here

The Bucket List

This week’s blog was inspired by The Daily Mail – not the path I expected to take when imagining my first sophisticated, high-brow environmental piece. But I wasn’t flicking through the infamous ‘sidebar of shame’ or picturing myself with Clooney surrounded by dolphins, because that ship has sailed (congrats Amal). It was actually a middle-aged woman flicking through a copy on a train that sparked the idea I’m writing about. Bit of background to my day: my laptop had broken and I’d finished the Metro (obviously had a quick sob at the Good Deed Feed) so the 3 hour train from Glasgow to Oban, Scotland, with no phone signal had left me BORED out of my MIND. Luckily the lovely lady in her lovely cardy left her paper when she got to off, so I snuck over to her table, and promptly nicked it. This is when I saw the headline that inspired this post, some of you may have seen it too – it read “HALF the world’s wild animals have disappeared in 40 years”

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2774395/HALF-world-s-wild-animals-disappeared-40-years-Humankind-held-responsible-familiar-species-lose-battle-survival.html

Social media went mad for it, tweets, facebook, beebo, you name it. I realise it might have been classic scaremongering journalism, but it’s really not far from the truth! In university we were often taught about rocketing extinction rates, and even repeatedly made aware that many animals are now a lost cause to any conservation efforts.

I often flick through my whale & dolphin field ID guide because I’ve always got my next encounter in mind… and because I’m painfully uncool. So, this week it occurred to me that if I plan on seeing some of the rarest members of the whale and dolphin family before we nudge them off the planet, I better get my act together! With this in mind, I’ve knocked up a bucket list of the rarest cetaceans and where you might, (emphasising the might), be lucky enough to find them…

  1. HECTOR’S DOLPHIN

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There’s only an estimated 3000 of these tiny dolphins left in the world, and all of them are in New Zealand. They are about 1.5 metres in length, and have an easily recognisable dorsal fin which is round, not pointed. They are stocky and have a complex grey, black and white colour pattern. These guys are really playful, often known to bow ride and jump out of the water!

Where to (try and) find them

New Zealand, mainly off South Island. Generally stay in shallow coastal waters in the summer, known to venture as far as 10km offshore in winter. The Banks Peninsular Marine Mammal Sanctuary was set up in 1989 to protect them from threats (e.g. commercial gill-netting & high speed boats), and has been reasonably successful.

http://akaroadolphins.co.nz/ – This company is Department of Conservation approved, so they should be nice and responsible with their Hector watching.

  1. INDUS RIVER DOLPHIN

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Its estimated that less than 1,000 of these funny little river dolphins survive in the wild. They are a uniform grey-brown colour, (sometimes they look a bit pink underneath), they have a long narrow beak, tiny eyes, and a little hump instead of a fin. There’s been confusion about the difference between the Indus River Dolphin and the Ganges River Dolphin for years, but they’ve been classed as two separate species since the 1970s. This might change again though – the sample of animals that they studied for differences in  skull and blood protein composition was really really small, so they could be re-classified as a subspecies.

Where to (try and) find them

Pakistan, in the Indus River (flowing through Sind and Punjab provinces). Mainly found in between the Guddu and Sukkur barrages at the downstream end of the river. During the dry season they are found in main channels, at the monsoon they can disperse into minor tributaries.

http://www.adventurefoundation.org.pk/indus_dolphin.php – a non-profit organisation that runs eco-tourism projects, using traditional river-boats silently sailed by the Indus Boat People, locally known as Mohannas, Keehal or Sheikh

  1. VAQUITA

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Also known as ‘Gulf of California Porpoise’. Very poorly understood animals – they avoid or ignore boats so it’s been hard for biologists to get close. There’s only about 500-600 vaquitas left in the wild, and up to 84 of these could be drowning in nets every year (huuuuuge number considering how tiny the population is, bit scary really). They are grey all over and about 1.5 metres long with a dolphin-like fin, a dark patch around the eyes, and a dark line running from the mouth to the flipper.

Where to (try and) find them

This porpoise only lives in the Sea of Cortez, (Gulf of California), at the extreme northern end. They’re most common around the Colorado River Delta and they stay within 25 km of the shore, never in water much deeper than 40m.

http://desertandsea.com/whale_watching_tours.html – these tours are featured on the Planet Whale website and advertise Vaquitas…They’re definitely in the right area, but there are no photographs of any encounters (understandably?), and I couldn’t find endorsements from conservation groups.

  1. NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE (N. Atlantic & N. Pacific)

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The Northern Right Whale is the rarest large whale in the whole world. Estimated to be about 300 left in the north Atlantic and only 100 in the north Pacific. Pacific and Atlantic populations are technically two separate species but they look exactly the same. They are so rare that in the north Pacific only one calf has been seen in the last 100 years! They have no dorsal fin, a dark grey uniform colouring (apart from the white patches on their tummy), and callosities on their faces in roughly the same places that men get facial hair.

Where to (try and find) them

….I’ll give you two guesses. In the North Atlantic your best bet is Cape Cod in spring time, the Bay of Fundy or Scotia shelf in summer, and Georgia in the winter. The small population in the North Pacific can be found in the Sea of Okhotsk (east to the Gulf of Alaska), and occasionally off the USA & Baja California, Mexico.

http://www.fundyfun.com/what-to-see/whale-watching.php – These guys advertise a huge variety whale and dolphin sightings and boast that the Bay of Fundy is the best place in the world to spot Right Whales, so they seem like a good choice. Couldn’t find any conservation groups affiliated, but they do nature tours and birdwatching as well so chances are they know their stuff!

http://www.rightwhalefestival.com/ – There are no Right Whale tours in Florida but this Festival is kicking off next month – you can learn all about Right Whales, take part in fund raising fun runs and beach cleans, and try to blag an invite to the afterparty! (I mainly want to go for the cool whale hats)
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  1. YANGTZE RIVER DOLPHIN (BAIJI)

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Officially the rarest cetacean in the world, it’s even unclear whether it might already be extinct (the last estimates were in 1998 at around 20 animals). It’s a medium-sized blue-grey dolphin, about 2.5 metres long, with a little round head and a very long narrow beak. Its fin is very low and triangular and its flippers look quite broad and flat. 12% of the entire human population lives at the mouth of the Yangtze river, China, so it’s no wonder they’ve dwindled away over the last thirty years.

Where to (try and) find them

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but I’ll personally give you my Christmas ticket to Australia if you see any. If you’re heading to China and fancy giving it a go, its recommended to focus your search in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River – specifically where tributaries enter the river, or close to sandbanks or islets.

http://www.chinaodysseytours.com/tours/search/?act=yes&tour_length=&tour_region%5B%5D=77&button – This is the operator recommended for English-speaking tourists in China. They don’t advertise the dolphins because you really can’t know if they exist anymore, but to be honest the other sights along the river look like enough reason to take a trip anyway.


The chances are that the Yangtze dolphin has already disappeared. If there are any left they probably aren’t a viable population to try to save the species, and the habitat is so packed full of humans that they won’t have anywhere to live. It’s pretty bleak – these will probably be confirmed as the first cetaceans to become completely extinct. But the other species in my list might have a chance to recover, just like the Grey Whale has in the North Pacific (massively affected by whale hunts, but making such a good recovery that there might be more now than there ever was before hunting!).

Fingers crossed, there might still be chances to see these rare whales and dolphins in the wild. I’ll keep my bucket list on the fridge ready for any revisions.

See ya

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Much of this post was inspired by Mark Carwardine’s fantastic Field ID Guide for Whales & Dolphins (Collins Nature Guides, 2006). I recommend that everybody always carries a copy of it everywhere.

Things that look like fish, but aren’t

FASCINATED BY MARINE MAMMALS (….and quite impressed by the odd fish)

I’m a zoology graduate who is slowly realising that marine mammals are her passion in life (and who is vaguely aware that she is approaching something like a quarter life crisis).

In my 25 years on this earth I’ve been lucky enough to swim with wild Bottlenose dolphins, encounter a very curious Humpback whale in the Indian Ocean, study the hoards of enormous Grey seals in the North Sea, and record sightings of numerous whale, dolphin, porpoise and seal species in the Atlantic.

Here is where I’ll share my experiences with these awe-inspiring animals, so if you’re into stuff that looks fishy but is definitely not a fish – stick around!

See ya,