This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Trying to make sense of marine mammals

bottlenoseSo much of the lives of dolphins and whales remains as a mystery. We only see what happens on or near the surface. Most of our study data is biased to surface activities, and when we submerge hydrophones and other tools we are still mostly blindfolded: either we drop in something that only records behavior when animals are nearby, of we tag them but cannot really see what they are doing, and thus miss the big picture.

And so many whale species are rarely spotted alive here; they only make themselves known when stranded, and often either dying or dead.

To a random observer it might look like we are collecting bits and bobs of data just for the sake of details. But for example weather is used to predict the probability of a sighting, and the probability is for example going into a model of distribution of animals in the area, if this is the research question asked. If the weather is poor and we see some animals, it is possible to model their actual existence in a certain area based on how easily they really were to spot vs. what amount we probably missed due to poor conditions. There is some heavy, predictive data modeling going on in the background.

In essence, population ecology and much of cetacean (marine mammal) research is post-hoc analysis, meaning that the minds of scientist work different from those with my own background and working in controlled test-environments of laboratories. We would pose a question, a hypothesis; and then design and conduct an experiment to test this hypothesis. In cetacean research one collects lots and lots of data systematically, and interrogates the data afterwards to answer several research questions. Many times there is no hypothesis when one goes out to collect data, but the research questions can be asked by going backwards in time to look at years and years worth of data, to find a pattern.whaleIn Kenya we collected much information on fishing activities: locations of harpoonists, fishing dhows, and nets. Combined with dolphin sightings one could map out a picture of how fishing activities change the routes the dolphins prefer to take in the area.

In the Amazon, much of the data collection was analysis of social groups of branded animals: who interacts with whom, which animals are seen together year after year who has calves and where do the calves go when they grow up.

And yes, from time to time we see whales, too. We capture data in an opportunistic fashion. This whale was enjoying life and barrel-rolling, flipping its fins, for twenty minutes. Dolphins like to bow-ride boats, but today was the first time I saw tiny Heaviside’s dolphins bowride a humpback whale. Double joy.
whaleandheviside(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

(Photos courtesy of Sea Search)

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At sea, with pelicans

pelicancaseNot even a pelican can break into a Pelican Case. Thank goodness, as the cameras inside are not cheap.datamonkeySomeone has to be the data monkey, and I never really mind the job. On a rare, sunny day I do not need to wear gloves. Underneath that windbreaker are two (!) fleeces and a merino wool underlayer. Yes, this is Africa, still. And freezing cold, misty, and humid most of the time, due to the Benguela current that pulls up right from Antarctica.

Out of all projects sofar this one has taken me furthest out to sea, all the way to the edge of the continental shelf – and in a very small boat which fits 4-5 people, a pelican, and lots of very expensive equipment. pelicanboat(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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Never alone at sea

pelicans-2In Walvis Bay one may not see dolphins for hours, but one is never alone. There is the Namibian Air Force, also known as great white pelicans….sealand cape fur seals, that steal joyrides on boats and ships of any size…petrel-1and giant petrels, and penguins. Yes, penguins. A swimming penguin looks like a drowning duck. I have no photos but please take my word for it.

And sometimes one can spot a dolphin swimming sideways along the boat, just to get a good look at who’s in it.dolphin(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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Back to the ocean – and dolphins

walvisbay-3Back on a boat – and with dolphins. This time with bottlenose and Heaviside’s dolphins, in the cold plankton and jellyfish soup that is the Benguela current. Walvis Bay has a large industrial port, which means dolphins often zigzag between ships and oil platforms. And we, too, alongside of them.

The office is filled with cetacean bones. Our front yard is filled with boxes of bones. Killer whale and bottlenose dolphin skulls, minke whale vertebrae, a Ryde’s whale jawbone, and huge, hairy, bone brush baleens.

Inside hangs a poster with dolphin and whale species, many named after scientists: Heaviside’s dolphin, Peale’s dolphin, Bryde’s whale (pronounced here as “brutus whale”, even if Bryde was a Norwegian). Perhaps it was a custom to give famous naturalists a marine mammal species named after them upon retirement. If not dolphin or whale then a seal. Or a penguin. walvisbay-2(Walvis Bay, Namibia; June 2017)

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The secret minds of sea lions

IMG_3196.JPGSea lion group cuddle? Hardly: life as a sea lion is all about who is the most competitive, rowdy, and sizey.

That wonderful moment when there is just enough space for a stretch and just enough cuddle for warmth? Someone will push you into the chilly water. That moment when you have proclaimed yourself as the king of the bachelor pontoon? A seagull will bomb you.

And yet there are those huge, mature individuals who find a spot, carefully balance their heavy heads vertically over their necks, point the muzzles toward the sky and never mind the world that turns.

And as I stood by the Pier 39 I realized that zen finds sea lions when they feel secure about their place in the world. Oh how wonderful it would be to dive into the minds of these characters of extreme.

(Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco; December 2014)


Date with the fish

Crete-23When the sun is up and breakfast has settled, it is time for a date with the fish. The crystal water looks shallow when viewed from a rock; dive in and suddenly a world of blue depth opens. The shallowness is just an illusion of perfect clarity.

Among the rocky reef, green-and-blue-marbled ornate wrasses bustle like costumed dancers going to a samba carnival, while scorpion fishes stealthily hang onto the undersides of rock, blending into the shadows. Diving into a submerged cave, tarantula-like Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle away between the boulders on long, yellow-striped legs. And in the sandy beach bottom, a flounder is completing the camouflage-transition to invisibility.

Floating among the shoals of little deep blue fish I cannot quite decide which kind of life would be better: the zestful, endless ocean exploration of sardines or the quiet, world-observing meditation of the starfish. In the end, which is preferred? To truly be content with simple and less; or to spend one’s life exploring and chasing dreams?


(Agios Pavlos, Crete, Greece; August 2014)