An Is­land with Two Eyes


iD magazine - - Contents -

Close en­coun­ters with cu­ri­ous cetaceans

Gray whales are among the most in­quis­i­tive an­i­mals in the world. No other species of whale seeks con­tact with hu­mans as of­ten as th­ese liv­ing rocks. Here id presents a close en­counter with one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing in­hab­i­tants of the planet…

The ocean off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia is smooth as glass. The sun is high in the sky and only a sin­gle boat bobs along the sur­face of the sparkling wa­ter. There is wa­ter as far as the eye can see—un­til all of a sud­den the sur­face ap­pears as if it is be­gin­ning to boil. Mil­lions of tiny bub­bles emerge out of nowhere. Just sec­onds later the boat is sur­rounded by six swim­ming rocks. The mus­sel-cov­ered is­lands are only an arm’s length away from the crew. As if hyp­no­tized, the crew mem­bers stare at the whitish-gray rocks—and the rocks stare right back at them…


Ex­actly 330 feet. It’s dan­ger­ous for a boat to get any closer to a whale—at least ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional whale watch­ing con­ven­tions. Off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia, how­ever, this un­writ­ten rule is reg­u­larly bro­ken. But that’s not al­ways the fault of the hu­mans who op­er­ate tours for the whale watch­ers; ac­tu­ally, the gray whales them­selves are of­ten to blame. In fact, no other mam­mal is as in­quis­i­tive about and in­ter­ested in hu­man be­ings as th­ese 50-foot-long leviathans. While other whale species can only be ob­served from a dis­tance or when they emerge by chance—per­haps at­tracted to the wa­ter’s sur­face by a large swarm of krill—the gray whales reg­u­larly and de­lib­er­ately seek prox­im­ity to peo­ple. Again and again marine bi­ol­o­gists

have ob­served gray whale mothers guid­ing their calves to the wa­ter’s sur­face and down­right en­cour­ag­ing them to make con­tact with the lit­tle crea­tures in the mys­te­ri­ous plas­tic trays—i.e., us.

In­ter­est­ingly, it’s not just tour boats full of whale watch­ers that re­ceive a dili­gent in­spec­tion from gray whales, but kayak­ers and surfers as well— some have found them­selves be­ing es­corted by the an­i­mals for sev­eral min­utes. It’s an en­thralling en­counter but it doesn’t al­ways go so smoothly, as is ap­par­ent in nu­mer­ous Youtube videos. In fact this “spy­hop­ping”—as marine bi­ol­o­gists call the sur­fac­ing and mon­i­tor­ing be­hav­ior ex­hib­ited by whales and dol­phins—can have fa­tal con­se­quences for both the an­i­mals and hu­mans. Rea­son: On one hand the whales are ex­tremely in­ter­ested in con­tainer ships, and when they are swim­ming along with th­ese trans­port ves­sels some­times they can be so badly in­jured by the ship’s pro­pel­ler or the bow when they sur­face that they sink, life­less, to the ocean floor. On the other hand, hu­mans can also be killed by prox­im­ity to the 40-ton marine giants. Last March a Cana­dian tourist in Mex­ico died from in­juries sus­tained when a gray whale crashed into the boat she was trav­el­ing in as the crea­ture was sur­fac­ing.

Re­searchers still puz­zle over the rea­sons for the ex­treme cu­rios­ity of the gray whales. What they do know, how­ever: Although gray whales travel

far­ther than any other mam­mal—up to 15,000 miles ev­ery year mi­grat­ing from Mex­ico to the Arc­tic and back again—un­like other whale species, gray whales jour­ney­ing through the Pa­cific stay close to the coast, which for the most part is heav­ily pop­u­lated by peo­ple. What’s more, the an­i­mals are the only whales that also search for food along the ocean floor—us­ing a unique feed­ing tech­nique: They’ll hunt and eat crus­taceans and snails that live on the ocean floor by rolling onto one side and suck­ing in bot­tom sed­i­ment as they slowly swim along. They then push the wa­ter and muck out through their baleen plates while the food an­i­mals re­main trapped in their mouth. Dur­ing the course of this hunt­ing process scores of bar­na­cles, cray­fish lar­vae, and snails also at­tach them­selves to the whale’s body—so much so that an adult whale may be car­ry­ing around up to 450 pounds of th­ese small stow­aways on its body. While for­ag­ing along the ocean floor most gray whales turn onto their right side. Ac­cord­ingly, the baleen plates on the right side are of­ten shorter and more worn down than those on the left, and the right side of the head is more se­verely scratched up from rum­mag­ing around on the seabed— which is one more thing that makes gray whales look like liv­ing rocks that jut out from the wa­ter…

IN THE SIGHTS OF A GI­ANT Spe­cial pho­tore­cep­tor cells en­able the color-blind whales to main­tain vis­i­bil­ity of up to 30 feet even in low light and murky wa­ters. How­ever their eyes, which are about as big as or­anges, are pri­mar­ily adapted for sight above the

WHO’S WATCH­ING WHOM HERE? No other whale species sur­faces in the vicin­ity of hu­mans as of­ten as the gray whale, which can be up to 50 feet long. While the an­i­mals are ob­serv­ing us they some­times show off the up to 150 baleen plates they use to strain plan

STOW­AWAYS Over the course of its life, up to 450 pounds of bar­na­cles, snails, and cray­fish lar­vae will at­tach them­selves to the skin of a gray whale. The crea­tures feed on what­ever falls from the gi­ant’s mouth as it eats.

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