Having a whale of a time.

Also guest blogging at Backseat Radio: Alexis(not)onfire.

From the Earth Hour’s green, to the F1 Grand Prix’s red, Malaysia is currently bathed in blue with the Big Blue Exhibition happening now at Mid Valley Megamall. While we have switched the lights back on, whale conservationists are still working hard on saving the Blue Whales from going extinct, much like what they have been doing since the 1960s.

To be honest, I never knew much about the Blue Whales. So, when I was scheduled to interview whale expert, Dr Bruce Mate, I went online and did myself a little educating (Thank God for Wikipedia). And I was surprised on what the species have gone through.

From an initial 275,000 population, they were down to a mere 10,000 today. All because there was no control over whaling in the turn of the 20th century. Between 1930 and 1931, already, 29,400 were taken off in the Antartic alone for human satisfaction of whale meat and whale oil. By the time the activity was banned in 1966 by the International Whaling Commission, dead were 408,000 of them. Because of this, they are enlisted as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Red List.

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

So, I was quite perked up with my interview with Dr Mate. Just to find out more about the gentle giants, what researchers have done to save them, and what we can do to chip in. And perhaps, go into the big blue ocean and give these whales a great BIG hug.

1. How many years have you been doing these kinds of researches?
I began my research on marine mammals 41 years ago in 1968, and in 1978, I started including whales in my researches. Only recently in 1993 did I begin researching on Blue Whales.

2. Are there any difference, researching on other smaller mammals compared to researching the Blue Whales?
There is a big difference, especially in the matter of the Blue Whales’ size and their immense amount of stamina. They can dive more than 1 mile (5280 feet) in depth and stay down there for an hour to feed on squids as big as the size of a room! It just amazes me how they can stay down there for so long in one single breath; we can’t go that deep and stay that long!

3. Throughout your profession for more than 40 years, what would you say is the most extraordinary discovery you have done?
Every research I have embarked on has provided me with brand new insights on the species and changed my mind on how I thought were their behavioural patterns.

One of the most profound researches I have done would be the one over at the Bay of Fundy in Canada. We discovered that because of the shipping traffic up there, it had been the cause for the increased collisions between the ships and the North Atlantic Right Whale. We brought the issue up to the Canadian Coast Guard and in 2003, they adjusted the shipping lanes by just a mere 4 miles (6.44KM) back, and that has lessened the collision risk by 80%.

4. Blue Whales have a slow populating process, what with their small litter size (once every 2 to 3 years) and longer reproduction rate (gestation period of 10 to 12 months), how long do you think it will take before they make up to their initial population?
If everything goes right, the Blue Whales have a chance of increasing their population by 7% every year. Roughly in 10 years’ time, they are able to double their population. There are only an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Blue Whales left in the world today, so to reach their initial population before the whaling era, which was about 275,000 – you do the math – they have got a long way to go.

5. Do you think it is possible that they will be lifted off IUCN Red List’s Endangered list?
It is possible. For example, the Humpback Whales. During the whaling era, they hit a low of 1,500 before the illegal hunting was banned worldwide. They were on the brink of extinction. But because of heavy conservations, they made a dramatic comeback in a May 2008 study, reporting a healthy population of between 18,000 and 20,000. With that, they were moved from the Vulnerable status to the Least Concern status. So, we are hopeful for the Blue Whales too.

6. In Malaysia, there are rehabilitation centres for Orang Utans in Sepilok, Sabah and Semenggoh, Sarawak, whereby the centres have their own jungles where the Orang Utans can live in a natural environment. Do you think the same can be done for the Blue Whales with a centre set up out at sea away from human civilisation?
Personally, I do not think it is practical. Firstly, the expense is astronomical to rehabilitate a Blue Whale. A Blue Whale calf already feeds on 380-570 litres of milk a day.

Other than that, the Blue Whales move all over the place to get food. It takes about four to five days for them to stay at one place and finish off the billions of krill available in that area, before going off to another spot again. We cannot gather all the food in one place and have them stay there either; it would be against their nature.

The only way we can help them out is to be out of their way while migration, such as relocating fishing lanes and shipping ports. Blue Whales are gargantuan in size, so it is much easier to move the smaller things.

7. Scientists and researchers are already hard on helping the Blue Whales. How can the public chip in before they hit extinction?
The public has to do their part in saving the environment if they would like to help the Blue Whales. For example, do not litter, or throw contaminated and toxic dump into the ocean. Do not let off Helium balloons into the air because in the end, they will drop into the ocean and marine mammals may either mistaken them to be jellyfishes and eat them, or get choked to death with them.

8. Other than whaling and pollutions, I read that Orcas (Killer Whales) contribute in depleting the population of the Blue Whales. Are these attacks accidental or predacious?
It is not accidental; Orcas do go out and hunt the Blue Whales. Some whales eat fishes, some krill and some squids, while others go for other marine mammals. A Blue Whale has great stamina, and it will try to outrun the Orcas with them trying to cling on its back, tearing off its skin. It can get pretty brutal.

9. Is there any way that can be stopped? Maybe create a Whale Song and ask the Orcas to lay off the big guys?
Heh, nah, this is a natural food chain. We can try to stop them, but we do not know what the ripple effect might cause in years to come, which may be more disastrous than the issue at hand.

10. What can the Malaysian public expect from the Big Blue Exhibition?
I would say, expect to be impressed by the size and scale of this unique mammal. We have made a sculpture replica of the baby Blue Whale, which is 9 meters long, and they will grow to be three to four times longer when they are adults. So, it would be an eye-opener to be up close and personal with something that big in size.

11. What is the general message you are hoping to send out during this Exhibition, as well as the National Geographic Channel’s documentary?
Basically, we would like to create awareness and compassion towards these creatures, and hopefully, have them assist in the animals’ plight.

Strong science is important when it comes to helping them. We do not need to create a scene by going into a shipping port and acting all emotional. All we need to do is provide hard facts and how it is harming the animals, and from there, we work for a mutual agreement where we can share the space with the animals.

When it comes to saving the wildlife, there is a pattern to it: identify their habitat. By understanding their way of life, we can change human activities, which will in turn keep them from going extinct.

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The Big Blue Multimedia Exhibition is on now till April 13 at Mid Valley Megamall (East Atrium).
You can also catch the documentary on National Geographic Channel (Astro ch 553).

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One Response to “Having a whale of a time.”

  1. mista amin Says:

    quote from answer no7:
    Do not let off Helium balloons into the air because in the end, they will drop into the ocean and marine mammals may either mistaken them to be jellyfishes and eat them, or get choked to death with them.

    i didn’t know that a balloon can be consider as dangerous towards the whale extinction.
    good info!

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