Whales are so mysterious, rising from the deep the way they do. It begins with an impression of presence, then your eyes discern a change in the darkness of the water, then, yes!, there’s something there. Right there! See it? A whale!
For those, like me, who mainly come from earthbound realms, seeing whales could never get old. Sometimes they are so distant that you only see the far-away puff of “blow” as a whale exhales at the surface. Sometimes you get lucky, and they swim past more nearby. Either way, it must be impossible to be a lover of nature, and not love whales.
Here’s some interesting sleep research trivia related to whales. Sleep occurs in phases, include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the tone of voluntary muscles is completely absent, rendering one essentially paralyzed. This bodes poorly for mammals who are swimming! Not wanting to drown, dolphins and whales have evolved the ability (researchers say) to skip REM sleep. However, the restfulness produced by NREM sleep is so essential that marine mammals do something called “split-brain” NREM sleep. “When it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awakes while the other snoozes away,” according to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep (p.64).
During our time plying the Antarctic waters in January & February, 2018, travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer saw fin, minke, humpback, and killer whales, and also a couple of the mighty (and mighty rare) blue whales. Even our naturalists were excited to see the blue whales there in the waters south of the South Shetland Islands.
Our collective excitement stemmed from knowing how, as seal populations faltered in the face of the hunting frenzies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whale hunters swept into the region. They targeted one whale species until it became scarce, then another, and another, until the whalers worked their way through populations of humpback, blue, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. Now, most have rebounded some, but they’re far from safe.
The blue whale population is still rebounding from the decimation of their numbers. In all, more than 300,000 blue whales were taken. The world population now estimated at about 2,000 is still just a fraction of the pre-1911 population. To see them at all, even for seasoned veterans, was highly encouraging.
Blue whales aren’t the only ones in trouble, though. The killer whale researchers onboard our ship said that those they studied on this visit seemed thin. Their theory is that as sea ice diminishes (the place is warming faster than anywhere else), there are fewer stores of krill, which are the shrimp-like creatures relied on for nourishment by all the creatures along the food chain there. Of course, this is worrisome. The researchers are dedicated to monitoring the situation. Armchair whale lovers everywhere: support the science being done on behalf of these magnificent creatures, won’t you?