Battle of Titans: Orcas vs Gray Whales

It is an ageless story, mothers banding together to protect their young from instinctive killers. The fact that it was a battle between behemoth Gray Whales and Killer Whales (Orcas) made it all the more epic in scope, and worthy of the telling.

A fellow scientist and I had driven south early one springtime morning from Anchorage, Alaska to Seward. At 11 AM our glacier view cruise boat left the docks at Seward and headed for the glacier fields at the Kenai Fjords National Park where the glaciers sliding slowly down from the mountains calved into the Gulf of Alaska.

Heading south from Seward.

From there we motored on until we were attracted to a near-shore area by the blowing of water and foam from a group of migrating Gray Whales. The rapid pace of their exhalation was a sure sign that something was wrong. We had stumbled upon a battle involving another type of calf just as the combatants were taking their positions on the battlefield.

A female Gray whale weighing between 30 to 40 tons had birthed her baby during the winter in Baja California and now the mother, quickly growing baby, and two female caretakers (often  called “aunties”) were almost through with their migration to the Bering Sea. But as they swam beyond Prince William Sound, not far from their final destination, they were attacked by two adolescent transient Orcas who wanted that baby whale.

Our boat stopped far enough from the battle to not hinder the fight, but close enough for us to witness the events. Our biologist guide warned us that if we had a weak stomach we might not want to watch because often times the Orcas succeed in killing the baby Gray.

I don’t think anyone on the boat averted their eyes as the three massive females arranged themselves head to tail into a triangular defensive formation, with the baby in the middle. There was no way for the Orcas to get past the females on or near the surface, so they made repeated dives trying to enter the center of the triangle from underneath and attack the baby. But with each dive, the wily Grays maneuvered to block the Orcas.

The Orcas were nothing if not persistent. Perhaps sensing that, the whales started moving closer to a rock cliff face, and then they did something clever, but potentially risky. There was an opening in the rock wall and the baby whale had been nudged into that opening. One whale, probably the mother, was completely blocking that opening with her body. The Orcas tried repeatedly to find a way past her to the baby, but between the blocking action of the other two Grays and the blubbery plug of the cave entrance by the mother, there was nothing the Orcas could do.

We of course saw the riskiness of that defense. It looked to us like the baby was trapped underwater. Even a whale has to breathe sometime.

The other boat was too close to the action, but provides scale for the "cave".

But as I look at the photo I realize now that the cave was tall enough and just deep enough to allow the baby to breathe even with water access cut off. Obviously, the Gray Whale mother had made good use of her 4.3 kg brain. Nevertheless, from our elevated vantage point we could see over the mother whale, and we saw that the baby remained submerged. I’m guessing it was wedging itself in as tightly as it could. The anxiety on our boat grew perceptively as the minutes ticked down with us knowing the baby was holding its breath.

The tactic worked, for the Orcas eventually tired of the game, and after making one or two leaps out of the water they moved away from the whales and headed north toward seal colonies we passed on the way south. The seals would be easier pickings than those highly protective Gray Whales.

There was jubilation on our boat. I think we’d all been holding our breath like the baby, at least a little.

When the coast was clear, literally, the Grays moved back into the open water near where the battle had begun and caught their breath, heaving great geysers of watery air as they panted. They had obviously been very stressed, but their cleverness and strategic cooperation saved the day, or at least the moment.

Two Orcas. Copyright by Rolf Hicker. Used under fair use.

Things could have been different, both better and worse. Local Orcas were so-called residents who don’t attack Gray Whales. Residents tend to be fish eaters. Fortunately for the Gray baby, the more lethal transients were not as experienced with the local geography. They were also adolescents, not as experienced as adults, and there were only two of them. A pack of them, with adolescents being guided by adults, might have been more succesful. Transient Orcas, genetically different from Residents are reported to kill a third of the baby Gray Whale population each year.

Interestingly, the Grays seem to know where transient Orca populations are the most active, and in those regions they tend to stay close to shore. In this case that strategy paid off by allowing the baby to be protected by a rock wall and its mother.

On the boat we celebrated all the way back to Seward; we had witnessed a frightening conflict with, for us and the whales, a happy ending.

To learn more about Orcas attacking mother Gray Whales and their calves, see the excellent photos and story at the following website. http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/MtyBayOrcaattack.html

Scalloping – What If the Tide Turned?

It’s scallop season in the fertile waters of the Florida Panhandle. Almost completely surrounded by a peninsula called Cape San Blas sits a shallow body of clear water and sandy bottom that is an ideal location for bay scallops. Unfortunately for the scallops, the shallow water makes a yearly harvest of scallops by boaters and waders almost too easy.

Recently my extended family of eight descended on the unsuspecting bivalves as if our lives depended upon them. We spent most of a day in a hunter-gatherer mode, reaping the benefit of a bountiful crop, imagining an earlier day when local tribes did in fact depend on the local scallops and oysters for their survival.

I had been scalloping in Saint Joseph’s Bay once before, but this year the scallops were larger, and seemingly more bountiful. They attempted to hide in the sea grass, and I suppose those that hid well were passed over. But fortunately for us, many could not hide from the practiced eyes of determined snorkelers.

Usually scallops react to being picked up by snapping their shells together in an attempt to protect their vulnerable innards. However, one large scallop which had apparently lived long enough to be the equivalent of a wise scallop, or perhaps simply an inquisitive scallop, started to close his shell, and then stopped. We remained locked in a gaze, me with my green eyes staring through a diving mask, and it staring at me with its multiplicity of luminous, iridescent blue eyes.

Photo credit: Bill Capman, 2002.

I know this is blatant anthropomorphism, but it seemed like it was saying, “Well, hello. What’s this? Are you a deity? I’ve heard about you, but you’re not at all what I was expecting.”

I must admit I stared back quizzically, surprised by this little fellow’s bravado. He truly seemed to be checking me out.

It was bad luck for him that his telepathic powers of communication didn’t make a dent in my determination to eat him, or at least to eat his adductor muscle after discarding the rest. So into the bag he went with the growing collection of other scallops. In the end, his bravado did him no good at all.

It was somewhat of a pitiful sight as the captives were poured in a heap on a wooden platform just above the water of the bay. I bet they could smell it, the safety of water so close, and as the cliché says, so far away. They all tried to escape, to jet away, sounding like a chorus of  castanets. Of course, in air, jetting just doesn’t work for them. They were stranded. I could almost sense their collective panic.

I suspect the mechanics of scallop butchery came as quite a shock to this little guy. I’m just glad that this year I didn’t have to do it — my son took my place at the sacrificial altar. After all, shucking is, at its best,  tiring and a little bit gross. Beer helps of course.

In the unlikely event that now jaded scallop had seen me, had watched me with its sixty or more eyes as I began to take a shucking knife to it, could I really do what my family was expecting of me? Probably, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, I didn’t have to face that, and I will confess, I felt only pleasure, no guilt, as I finished off the last of those pure white scallop muscles, sautéed with butter, garlic and a dollop of lemon juice.

It was about 48-hours later, when the delicate flavor of those fresh scallops began to fade from my memory, that I had a sobering thought. Could those bivalves in fact be more sentient than we assume? After all, I’ve been mistaken before about the intelligence of invertebrates.

I’ve heard that scallop eyes can’t really see shapes, only shades of light, and movement. Arguably there is not enough neural matter for them to generate anything like a thought — at least in human terms.

But what if we’re wrong? Even worse, what if a highly advanced alien species, hungry after traveling interstellar distances, encounters humans? Would they consider us with the same lack of respect that we consider scallops? Could we be considered to have too little cerebral grey matter to create an organized thought — at least in alien terms? Would we be considered insentient and therefore unworthy of pity as we’re “shucked” and sautéed for dinner?

In Stephen Hawking’s opinion, that is a real possibility. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

So, maybe we shouldn’t be trying so hard to attract the attention of extraterrestrials. If they show up hungry, maybe our communication, telepathic or otherwise, would do us no more good than it did that inquisitive scallop.

He sure was tasty.

If You Were a Human-Animal Hybrid, What Would You Want to Be?

James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids is, for me at least, some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore. What a fun way to spend a cross-country flight!

Even though Patterson’s series is written for adolescents, it fulfills in me an inner need to fly.  What could be better than flying with your own magnificent wings? At the same time, it poses ethical questions about science and genetic experimentation. The flying kids despise their evil scientist creators, but the ability to fly sure gets them out of some tough scrapes, just in the nick of time of course. Up and away! (If you’ve read the books, you know what I mean.)

Now comes news that animal-human embryos have been created in secret, apparently for several years. (See the link, below). While the cries from ethicists and the public are a rising crescendo, and probably overstated once you understand all the facts, the hybridization concept raises an interesting personal question. If I was a hybrid, what would I want to be?

Without a doubt, being a human with wings, with the ability of flight, would be my number one choice. Of course, that does bring some hazards; collisions with aircraft being foremost. I don’t think being ingested by the engine of a passenger jet would be a fun way to go. Or being sucked into the updrafts of a potent thunderstorm and spit out, frozen, unable to fly, at the top of the storm 43,000 feet up. That would be a long fall for a bird-human ice-cube.

And of course you have the ever aggressive hunters and cryptozoologists anxious to get a piece, or more, of you. But if you’ve read any of the Maximum Ride series, you’re familiar with those human threats. It’s always the humans who seem to be the meanest and most determined.

Moving from the avian world to the aquatic, there are lots of options. But I think foremost would be my choice to be a top predator. After all, big fish eat little fish, so who wants to be a little fish?

Dolphins rank right up there in predatory prowess, although they’re not a fish, but a mammal. And they’re cute and smart. No one wants to be even part of a dumb, ugly animal.

For land animals, polar bears are undoubtedly the coolest predator, in an emotional temper sort of way. They don’t seem to fear anything, certainly not humans, who they consider dinner. But they never get to migrate to the tropics for vacation, so I consider that to be a real negative for any potential hybridization. And besides, their favorite food, seals, are cute, especially the baby ones. What humans, even part humans, would want to eat cute food?

Of course, I suppose if you’re hungry enough …

I think it is easier to think of being all animal than to think of being an animal with human traits like intelligence, speech, artistic and scientific creativity. Nevertheless, Planet of the Apes provided one well-known artistic example of that possibility. Another is a muscular, arguably intelligent walking frog, as seen here, borrowed from a now-obscure internet site (meaning I can’t find where it came from*). You’ll read more about such creatures in Children of the Middle Waters, when that book becomes available.

One unfortunate consequence of being an animal is that most animals are short-lived. There are exceptions of course, like the tortoise, but the 100-year or so life span of a tortoise must seem to drag on forever for them.

Certainly a long life span offers some advantages, like the odd mixture of mirth and despair we get from watching our fellow humans repeat the same mistakes over and over. For me, I think the blessed part of it is watching the generations of our offspring growing up and generating offspring of their own.

The more I think about the choices for being part animal, the more I think about what it is to be human; all human. As I ponder that thought, I keep returning to the simple fact that, to me at least, being human means we are able to love our spouses and children and parents with a pure unadulterated, non-judgmental,  joy; sort of like a dog welcoming its master home.

Well, actually, maybe we’re not so different from some animals after all!

In case you missed it, the news of the human-animal hybridization efforts was cited at the following link, and elsewhere

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2017818/Embryos-involving-genes-animals-mixed-humans-produced-secretively-past-years.html

*My apologies if you created the walking frog drawing. Send me your information and I’ll give you proper credit. Same thing for the other graphics which I believe to be in the public domain.

My Pathway to Writing – Learning from Max McCoy’s “The Moon Pool”

This is not some random book review. I have a personal investment in Max McCoy’s underwater thriller, and to be honest, Max is a friend and mentor.

As the Scientific Director and Senior Scientist of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), I get some unusual calls from time to time. One of the most memorable was from a novelist, Max McCoy.

Not being an avid reader of Westerns, I had never heard of Max, but he had an interesting question. He wanted to know if our large, high pressure chamber, called the Ocean Simulation Facility, could be used to depressurize a small submarine. He gave me the dimensions of the submarine, and little other information to go on.

The unequivocal answer was yes, it could be done fairly easily. With that affirmation, Max traveled to NEDU. After touring our facilities and meeting with our Commanding Officer, engineers, scientists, and submarine medical officers, he began sketching out a closing chapter of his manuscript, the Moon Pool. NEDU would be prominently featured.

During his visit, over lunch, we talked a little about my non-fiction writing project, a spiritual/supernatural collection of carefully filtered anecdotes. He encouraged me in my efforts, and even shared an amazing story of his own. But what Max did not know was that I was stuck in the style of science writing that had been the mainstay of my scientific career. It was hard writing, and frankly, hard reading as well.

When Max returned to Kansas, he sent me his manuscript, which I devoured. The Moon Pool was a change of pace for Max as well. He had been an avid diver for years, and had a diving related story brewing in his mind for some time. For him, The Moon Pool was a welcome, if temporary, release from the Western genre for which he was so well-known.

When I finished the manuscript I began an almost maniacal writing session of my own — an all nighter — writing how I thought the NEDU chapter should read. Since no one would see it, I featured myself and my buddies, inserting our characters into the story, and with a plausible and action-filled story line. I had never had so much fun writing — the words spilled out of my head onto the keyboard.

I sat on that secret product for probably a week before I told Max what I had done. He asked to see it, and much to my surprise, he and his publisher liked it. Even more to my surprise, my character and those of my friends ended up in the last chapter of Moon Pool, modified of course to meet Max’s needs. That book, published in 2004, has a treasured place in my office at NEDU.

On the back cover is my blurb, “A one-of-a kind underwater thriller. The sinister beauty of the underwater world is painted in hues that only an avid diver and inspired novelist could capture.” On the front cover, my dear friend Bob Barth, the Navy’s first Aquanaut, wrote, “A great book! Compelling stuff.” By the time Max visited us, Bob had authored his own book on the Navy’s historical Sea Lab program.

I owe a great deal to Max, for he taught me just how fun creative writing can be, and how, with proper guidance, it can be turned into a commercial product. I have since written two books, one written in record pace, for me at least.  The novel, working title “Children of the Middle Waters” is a mixed military-science fiction story that involves my favorite things, flying and diving, with a pinch of top-secret government intrigue;  just another day at NEDU.  After a long gestational period, I used the creative writing skills developed in the novel to improve the style of the spiritual/supernatural manuscript. Both Children of the Middle Waters, and the spiritual book have yet to be published. But I’m optimistic that will happen in good time.

I will discuss those works more in upcoming blog posts.

By the way, Max’s Moon Pool begins with a supernatural event that is tantalizing in its originality. Furthermore, my spiritual book contains an anecdote of a supernatural experience Max experienced when young. Finally, as a tribute to Max McCoy, he is the inspiration for an investigative journalist in Children of the Middle Waters.

In retrospect, that was quite an auspicious phone call I took one day eight years ago.

Below are links to Max’s web site and his writer’s blogs.

http://www.maxmccoy.com/

http://www.maxmccoy.blogspot.com/

http://www.signalsandnoise.net