BOOKS: Watching Giants

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2009:

Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales by Elin Kelsey
U. of Calif. Press (2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94704), 2008.
216 pages, paperback, illustrated. $17.95.

“Whales inspire me to contemplate connections,” says Elin
Kelsey, author and faculty member at Royal Roads University in
Canada. “They inspire me to act more generously. They inspire me to
experience life in whale scale.” Kelsey’s book Watching Giants takes
us into the fascinating world of all 32 species of the mammoth yet
graceful creatures.


Watching Giants begins with mature gray whales. The females
are either pregnant or lactating 80% of the time. Like the mothers
of many other species, whale moms stick together. To avoid oceanic
predators such as sharks and orca whales, gray whale mothers and
their calves swim close to shore or dive deep. Gray whales gather by
the thousands every year off the Baja Peninsula of Mexico to give
birth in one of four lagoons. Arriving around January, they don’t
return to their summer feeding regions more than a thousand miles to
the north until May. Calves are raised on stored milk that is 50%
fat.
Other baleen whale species and their calves hang around too.
Experts suggest that at least 15,000-20,000 gray whales and
3,000-4,000 humpbacks visit each year. And they’re all unique says
Elin and usually do not follow the same behavior patterns.
Diane Gendron, a blue whale expert at the Interdisciplinary
Center for Marine Sciences at La Paz, apparently knows many by name.
“Every January I can’t wait to get out and see who has come back,”
says Gendron. Her favorites include Nina, who later turned out to
be male.
Studying whales is mostly done by observation. And that
takes time and lots of it, says Doc White, a marine mammal
photographer whom Kelsey interviewed for this book. About ten pages
of White’s stunning photographs appear in Watching Giants.
Many whale species appear to live their lives in slow motion
compared to smaller species. Sperm whales, for example, may live
seventy years or more, and may nurse their young for 10 years or
more. Bowhead whales, found only in the Arctic, are known to live
nearly twice that long: a bowhead killed by Eskimos off Alaska in
May 2007 had been wounded by a “bomb lance” fragment in approximately
1890, and might have been born as early as 1877. This was only the
most recent of many similar finds.
Humans nearly hunted whales to extinction before the
International Whaling Commission declared a global moratorium on
commercial whaling in 1986. Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to
defy the moratorium, Japan on the pretext of killing whales for
scientific research, while Norway claims the IWC has no jurisdiction
over whales in Norwegian territorial waters.
California gray whales appear to have recovered, and in 1994
were taken off the U.S. endangered species list, but are the only
large whales to have made such a comeback. Meanwhile, removing gray
whales from Endangered Species Act protection brought more than 15
years of litigation and political pressure from the Makah tribe of
Neah Bay, Washington, who seek to resume whaling.
Makah whalers killed one gray whale legally in 2000, and one
illegally in 2007. The 2007 victims was identified in April 2009 as
CRC-175, who had been photographed by scientists 143 times since
1995, at locations from the northern California coast to waters off
central Vancouver Island, according to Cascadia Research Inc. Her
five killers were convicted; two were sentenced to short federal
prison terms.
Whale society is complex. They communicate through
vocalizations only they can understand, partly because their tonal
range goes beyond the limitations of human hearing. Says Hal
Whitehead of Dalhousie University, “When we found that there were,
in each area, different clans producing different vocalizations, we
then went to the other things we can measure, such as movement
patterns and micro-distribution.”
Elin discusses the whale’s private parts and how they
reproduce but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover. Whale
sexuality is among the most interesting sections of her book.
–Debra J. White

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