If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

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.