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Who’s Watching Who? Whales’ Behavior Leaves Scientists Baffled
7/20/2009
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Close encounters initiated by Baja’s Gray whales appear like conscious efforts to contact an alien species; supreme Court ruling echoes callous human history
by Craig Weatherby


We urge you to read an article from yesterday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, which documents a phenomenon that’s left scientists surprised, baffled, and amazed.

This account comes soon after the Supreme Court ruled against whale survival in favor of the Navy's ability to essentially ignore damage to fish and marine mammals caused by sonar from naval exercises and technology tests.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a strong dissent in which she cited research linking sonar to mass strandings of marine mammals, serious and fatal damage to marine mammals' ears, brains, central nervous systems, and vital organs, and the Navy’s own assessment that its exercises would cause extensive damage.

These facts led Ginsburg to write, “In my view, this likely harm... cannot be lightly dismissed, even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy’s 14 training exercises.”

The Navy has agreed to work with the opponents to minimize effects on sealife... especially marine mammals. Time will tell on that score.

Here's our summary of the amazing story from Baja, reported by the The New York Times in “Watching Whales Watching Us”. (If you're not registered on the Times Web site, you'll need to do that before you can view the article.)

The mystery of Baja's gregarious Gray whales
Back in 1972, some 35 years after a hunting ban allowed Gray whale herds to rebound in Baja California, an anxious Mexican fisherman named Francisco Mayoral
known locally as Pachicowas approached in his boat by a mother whale.

Given their reputation as fierce defenders of their fellow whales, known to butt boats, he was alarmed… especially when the whale swam under his small craft and raised it up.

As Times reporter Charles Seibert writes, “Gray whales, thought by some scientists to live as long as 100 years, were once commonly referred to as ‘hardheaded devil fish’ because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young, smashing whaling vessels and killing their occupants.”

But as Mayoral’s son Ranulfo told Seibert, “…their boat soon settled again, and the mother gray came back around once more, her head popping up out of the water now directly beside Pachico. She remained there for so long, just eyeing him, that Pachico finally reached across and touched her with a finger. And then with his whole hand, the whale holding still there before him, as if basking in the feel of a grasp without malice.”

And as Ranulfo Mayoral told Seibert recently, “Before then, everyone went out of our way to avoid the whales. And then all of that suddenly changed.”

Ever since, Baja’s Gray whales have displayed an unprecedented sociability toward humans.

Skeptics in the scientific community have tried to dismiss the behavior, but whale experts on the scene say those explanations simply don’t fit their observations, and ignore ample evidence that the whales have avoided hunting areas in the past.

And as Seibert found, the brains of whales, dolphins and killer and sperm whales contain brain structures similar to our own.

As Seibert reports, “Some, in fact, contained large concentrations of spindle cells—often referred to as the cells that make us human because of their link to higher cognitive functions like self-awareness, a sense of compassion and linguistic expression—with the added kick that whales evolved these same highly specialized neurons as many as 15 million years before we humans did, a stunning instance of a phenomenon biologists refer to as parallel evolution.”

We've seen, heard, and been splashed by feeding Humpback whales in Alaska, but never suspected that an even closer encounter with any of these massive creatures might be possible.

Gray whales seem eager to reach out to their one-time enemies, somehow aware that the human “war” on whales is over... at least in Baja.

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