Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mixed-bag NY Times article on whales

Very long NY Times Magazine article on whales being sociable with humans, mostly our local gray whales in their non-local nursery lagoons in Baja Mexico. One important piece of information I got out of it was that whales escaping from sonar and other underwater explosions show evidence of the bends because of their rapid ascent to avoid the sounds. While my view, that highly intelligent animals should be treated as if they have rights, is a minority position, there's a strong societal consensus that we shouldn't cause unnecessary pain to animals. The bends can be extremely painful in humans; we don't have any reason to assume it's better for whales.

Another interesting piece of information was the implication that only some gray whales, the "Friendlies", were sociable in the Baja lagoons while the rest kept their distance. Understanding which ones interact and which don't could go a ways towards explaining their behavior. Finally, the article pointed out that the whales weren't getting food from people, so it's not the usual reward system involved that tames wild animals. It's fascinating behavior.

Unfortunately though, the rest was quasi-New Age speculation that kept a veneer of scientific respectability by being posed as questions rather than stated as assertions. One example was when the author asked the main scientist being interviewed whether the whales' sociability showed "forgiveness" for past violence directed at gray whales (only token numbers have been hunted in the last 60 years). The scientific response should have been "your guess is as good as mine," but instead she says:

“Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn’t dare consider,” she said. “But thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I’d say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount that possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility.

Oh well. And this'll attract attention to the Baja lagoons, where I was hoping (selflishly) to visit sometime soon. Oh well. Maybe we can sort out the New Agey stuff and still be concerned with protecting whales and interacting with them.

UPDATE: Fresh Air interviews the article author and the main scientist, unfortunately not providing much useful information. They did add that only a small number of boats/captains are allowed to approach whales, which would reduce the riskiness of the whales' behavior.

Since not much science is being provided, I'll try a bit of speculation instead: polar bears are sometimes known to play with dogs instead of killing, avoiding, or ignoring them. My understanding is that these are seal-eating bears stuck on shore until winter ice lets them get out to sea, and they go a long time without eating. With no responsibility to feed themselves, they revert to immature play behavior, with dogs as playmates substituting for the bears' mothers and siblings.

The parallel to the whales is that the mother grays don't feed in the nursery lagoon. Other than feeding the calves, they have nothing to do but engage in play, and the humans are interesting creatures to play with.

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