Ted’s Talk On Whales – Community Questions Answered

Last month, we had the pleasure to host Ted Cheeseman for our Virtual Lecture Series Ted’s Talk on Whales. We had hundreds of you logged in to learn more about the whales that travel through our ocean. We learned a great deal and if you missed the talk, you can still watch it online:

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We had such a great attendance with so many engaged viewers that we didn’t have time to answer all of the questions live. BUT, Ted went through them all offline and kindly gave us his answers:

Happy Whales and citizen science

If someone did find a new whale would they get to name it?

There are long tradition of naming and adopting whales through a few different routes  — naturalists, researchers and guides have done so for many years; we add these names to the database we maintain. If you have photographed a whale that you would like to name, we ask that you make a contribution to any marine conservation and/or science organization for the honor of naming the whale, minimum of $500. You can donate to the Pacifica Beach Coalition, just send us proof of your donation. Or to a conservation project we support, the Whales of Guerrero Research Project: https://donorbox.org/support-whales-of-guerrero-and-happywhale-with-a-whale-adoption.

Love the happywhale.com site and will contribute! How can we keep this program funded?

Bless you! This is a labor of love into which we are putting in many many unpaid hours. We *had* solid funding until covid happened… so we are about to begin a campaign for community supported conservation science in partnership with Whales of Guerrero Research Project in Mexico — if you wish to support us, we welcome one time or sustaining tax deductible contributions — https://donorbox.org/support-whales-of-guerrero-and-happywhale-with-a-whale-adoption — AND you can name and adopt a whale 🙂

Are there any citizen science projects for ocean noise pollution?

Good question. I do not know of any. Noise pollution is best assessed by consistent monitoring over long periods of time, making it difficult to adapt to citizen science. But… perhaps there is and if so, I’d love to know more about it.

Add in from Lynn Adams – “I know a Bay Area scientist studying sound in the ocean and its effects on marine life   Check out  OCR.org.  I’ve been following him for a decade now and find his work very interesting, frightening (because of the damage from sound to wildlife)  and enlightening. Michael Stocker, Director

Are there any important proposed laws or bills to protect whales and other marine life that we as citizens can help support? 

The two most important laws for marine mammals are the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both of these have suffered massively, heavily weakened by the current administration and senate. vote, Vote, VOTE! For the sake of the environment, I like to look at this voting guide: https://www.lcv.org/endorsements/. And speak up to your representatives for the importance of marine conservation. The health of the oceans is not a given; this depends on our active engagement and commitment!

Do you give talks for schools?

I can… though I’m not the best for kids, as I tend to like to dive a bit deeper into the science than may be appropriate depending on age 🙂

How can we get on one of your trips?

I would love that! https://cheesemans.com/ — and specifically for whale watching locally: https://cheesemans.com/whale-watching  

Did his father teach at DeAnza college, where there’s a Cheeseman area full of different plants?

Yes, my father, Doug Cheeseman, taught biology and ecology at DeAnza from when the college was founded until 2002. He founded the Cheeseman Ecological Study Area there. Back when it was mostly a young garden of native plants amid piles of dirt my sister and I would slide down the waterfall and swim in the pond…

Whales off our coast

What times of year do we see which whales here in the SF Bay area and in the Monterey Bay area? growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains myself and now living in San Mateo County, I see several a year at various times  — and What times of year/dates do the whales frequent Pacifica the most?

Humpback Whales are present year-round but in greater numbers March through October, sometimes November.

Gray Whales travel close to shore January through April

Blue Whales are much less predictable but often present in mid-summer. Usually they require voyaging a bit further offshore.

Many other species of cetaceans, small and large, are here with different seasonal patterns. Go whale watching; every day is unique!

Why do humpbacks spy-hop?

Probably to have a look at you 😉  They certainly can see their surroundings well, and do look with curiosity.

Is it safe to sit on my surfboard with the whales right there?

If a whale passes close by while you are out in the surf. Stay still and enjoy. No whale is going to actively attack you if unprovoked. And why would you provoke a whale!? If the whale is breaching, I’d definitely advise paddling away!

Why do whales breach so often?

Breaching almost certainly depends on context. Think of it as a massive exclamation point; meaning depends on the context. They could be having fun, they could be making a statement, they could be trying to dislodge something like parasites or an entanglement.

What can you tell us about trumpeting?

What we call “trumpet blows” are often given during competitive mating behavior or other interactions among whales. Most often it appears that the trumpeting whale is irritated or excited

Do cruises have a big effect on whales?

Responsibly operated whale watch cruises appear to have very little to no effect on whale behavior and health. It is *very* important to focus on responsible behavior around whales — here’s a great resource for that: https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/preparing-for-a-trip/what-is-responsible-whale-watching. Large cruise ships and other vessels moving rapidly around whales can — and do — injure and kill whales. Ships strikes are one of the largest direct impacts humans have on whales. If in a boat, go slow!

Do the females show preference to some songs over others? Do better singers get the girls?!

No, apparently not. We actually don’t know why humpback whales sing. But it appears to be important to their breeding behavior, as whalesong is present constantly in the waters where they breed. My personal belief is that song effectively creates the social atmosphere and environment in which they breed.

Why do they do autopsies on whales that we find dead on our beaches?

Whales are usually necropsied to learn why the whale died. Evidence of a ship strike may not be visible on the surface, but cracked bones, especially a skull or vertebrae, can show if a whale was killed by a ship. Tissue samples of various types are often collected as well, to determine for example what the whale was eating, its health prior to death and other indications of life history. Just as medical students work with cadavers before becoming doctors, marine biologists can learn a lot from a whale carcass.

Other whales

Is whaling still going around and if it is, is it legal in parts of the world?

Whaling still exists in two forms: indigenous / cultural whaling and commercial whaling. Many nations have some level of cultural whaling, including the USA under strict regulation. Iceland, Norway and Japan still practice commercial whaling, though the total number of animals taken is low. While whaling is an issue of major emotional debate, probably only one whale or dolphin is killed by whalers for every 1000 whales and dolphins that are killed by ship strikes and entanglements. THIS is where we should be focusing if we want to save endangered species.

Are there any other baleen whales that cooperatively feed and/or Intervene to save other species, their song etc. – they seem quite unique. Any known explanation physiologically or do you think this is cultural /social ?

The direct engagement of humpback whales with other species like this is pretty interesting and definitely not well understood. Here’s a paper about the behavior: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mms.12343 

How long do the male escorts hang around the females & calves?

Male escorts do not form long lasting relationships or associations with mothers and calves. This is not exactly my field but associations of days or weeks are I believe as long as have been recorded.

What has been your favorite whale watching trip?

Personally, my favorite are days spent on the water among whales on the Antarctic Peninsula. Icebergs, crystalline seas reflecting glaciated mountains, and whales around my zodiac… hard to beat :). Well… but then there’s also swimming with whales in the Dominican Republic (if covid lets us) https://cheesemans.com/trips/silver-bank-mar2021 and hanging out among beluga whales along the Northwest Passage https://cheesemans.com/trips/beluga-jul2022. Yes… I find it hard to choose!

Dangers and Climate change!

Are you noticing the timing of the whales return to CA in recent years different due to climate change?

I answered this during the talk but wish to add to this: climate change is very complicated…  it is true that whale populations rebounding from whaling appear to be a greater force right now in California but “The Blob”, the largest marine heatwave ever recorded was a really big deal for whales in waters to the north of us. I believe that an estimated 70 fin whales were found dead and Glacier Bay National Park observed a total breeding failure during the years of the blob. And many of the whales that they could 100% count on for annual visits disappeared, some of them never to return nor show up elsewhere.

What can we do to prevent entanglements? AND Is there a way to have safer traps?

First, if you buy seafood, only buy safely and sustainably harvested seafood — a great resource: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/ — download the app!

Second, support efforts to improve fisheries management

Safer traps: yes… this will take time, investment and regulation. Currently there are many types of ropeless pot traps (ie for crab and lobster) in development; designs need to be improved, but serious fishing interests know that this is inevitable because killing whales and other marine life by tying them up in ropes until they die of drowning, starvation or infection just isn’t acceptable anymore. Urging government regulators to adopt a realistic but aggressive timeline for safer traps is critical.

In what ways are the plastic trash in the ocean affecting the whales?

For large baleen whales, we don’t yet know. It is very likely that microplastics have a bioaccumulation effect where plankton ingest algae covered plastic, krill or fish eat the plankton, whales eat the fish and krill, and a long chain of degrading petrochemicals are absorbed into their tissues. Whales seem to have remarkable cancer resistance compared to humans (consider a bowhead whale that lives for > 200 years — any human body that old would have been consumed by multiple cancers many times over) but they are not invulnerable. We’re conducting a massive uncontrolled experiment with plastics on land and at sea. Perhaps something to rethink!

Why can’t they use sonar to locate boats?

Baleen whales do not use echolocation at fine scale in the way that toothed whales (dolphins, killer whales, sperm whales) do. They know exactly where boats are in their vicinity when water is clear enough for visibility but also they are actively involved in their own behaviors. Think of it this way: if there was a freeway running through your dining room, would you be at high risk for being hit? That is the reality we have made for the whales especially in places like the mouth of the San Francisco Bay and Santa Barbara Channel. We collaborate with efforts to address this — http://www.whalealert.org/ 

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