Now it is official: The newest research about the genome of the baleen whale shows a new surprisingly fact: Gray whales belong to the family of rorquals. So far it was assumed, that gray whales have their own generic group, known as: Estrichtius. The same counts for humpback whales, which have their own group within the rorquals.
For the first-time scientists sequenced the whole genome of a blue whale and other rorquals, e.g. humpback whales and fin whales and viewed a new more detailed insight of the genealogical tree of the baleen whale family. By comparing the different DNS bindings, the scientist could reconstruct the evolution and the genealogical tree of the rorquals.
Blue whales have the most genetic similarities to the sei whale and the humpback whales to the fin whales. Who would have guessed that?
Speciation with gene flow
Special about the rorqual family is that their mate not only within their species but also with other kinds. The scientist Lammers explained „This speciation with gene flow is rarely seen”
Even though the gray whales have a various morphology, they do not have their own species group within the baleen whales. This fact does not change our love for these beautiful animals. Every year we get the chance to observe these friendly giants in the world largest biosphere area around the world, called “Vizcaina”.
Another population of grey whales can be found in the west pacific – or at least we thought so. Unfortunately, the reality shows something different: Whales, which were equipped with a tracker device, were only found in the eastern part of the pacific.
To the moon and back
Isn´t interesting that many mothers with their calves are visiting the San Ignacio Lagoon, before they start their journey to the North. Does the Lagoon offer a place for peace and energy to prepare them for the long trip of around 5000 miles? Gray whales are holding the world record in long distance swimming – during their live, they swim a distance comparable from the earth to the moon and back.
Not only orcas
The fact that 30% of the calves will die during the journey, makes me sad. A few groups of orcas are favoring to eat endotherm species and are specialized on hunting gray whale babies.
However, also humans create danger for the whales, like the collision with a vessel or the nets of fishers and other materials, which are dumped in the ocean.
Exchanging a layer of fat
The gray whale mum does everything for its little calve to raise it strong and keep it fit for the long journey to the northern hemisphere. While the little one gains more and more weight, the mum loses it. This is an exchanging of fat layers between these two.
On one hand, during this time the mother can lose up to 68% of her normal weight. Due to the loss in weight the mother needs serenity. On the other hand, the calves are growing bigger and stronger. They are becoming more adventurous and are eager to see the world.
This year (2018) the number of gray whales was alarming: 27 mothers with calves and 114 individuals. In comparison, 2017 we counted to the same time: 79 mothers with calves and 120 individuals. Previous years the numbers were constant, but every few years there is a strong fluctuation. But what are the reasons? We do not know for sure, it can be correlated to a weather situation called “La Nina”, which happens on the southern hemisphere.
Do you remember the old slide-shows?
Some gray whale individuals are known for over 40 years. Steven Swartz one of the leading scientists in this area, explained that he planned to get rid of his old slide shows from the 1970. Luckily, his wife, also a scientist, convinced him to donate the pictures to the University in La Paz. Dr. Jorge Urban, professor at the university, decided to start a project with his students. They compared the donated pictures with the current ones. Within a few days they could identify 23 whales. That means these identified whales have already been here for over 40 years.
Every year the whales need to adjust themselves to a new situation in this area – more boats (however, the number of boats is regulated) and more whale watchers than 40 years ago.
By the way it is on purpose that the engine on the boat is always running. This helps the animals to locate the boats. Also, the noises made by the engine is similar to the echo location by the gray whales, so it is not an interference. It is more the opposite it can attract the animals.
Human Brother is listening to you – and now also watching you
A current research is about the acoustics made by grey whales. They were able to identify 11 different sounds. The next step is to link these different sounds directly to one specific behavior. To support the researcher a tower was built next to the lagoon which gives them a better overview of the whales. Now it is their aim to synchronize the already existing sounds with the behavior shown by the observed whales.
Another new area of research is the usage of drones. They are brought into action specially to observe the behavior of mother and calve. What are good conditions and how can we support them? By the way, gray whales can give birth their whole life-span. Whale hunters killed an 80 year old grey whale lady, which was pregnant at this time!
The world needs good decisions
I am glad, that 30 years ago one of our captains: Chicharo decided to take the Mexican president for a whale watching trip. This event convinced the present to stop the construction of a huge desalination facility. Luckily, this area was announced to a biosphere reserve before, so that the president had a good point against the industrialization of the lagoon.
The world would be less beautiful without this marvelous place, which makes the contact between whales and humans possible. An area which is protected and managed by humans. The locals follow a strict code of conduct, which is more strictly than the governance regulations. The heartwarming care the people give to protect these whales is amazing or in other words: Best-Practice in Action.
You see, it is possible! I am strongly convinced that humans have the capacity and the knowledge to protect our blue planet, so that the following generation can enjoy this breath taking nature as well: Our source, our nourishment, our inspirations, and our life.
What happens in the Baja’s Lagoon is a miracle. A miracle between whales and humans which we need to celebrate.