Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Kingdom of the Blue Whale

I watched the show with excitement and anticipation, both nights. But each time a close-up of a blue whale was on the screen, I tilted my head in an effort to comprehend the position and orientation of the whale.

Am I the only who looks at the blue whale and thinks, "Is it swimming up-side down?"
But it isn't. The picture (above) is of a blue whale swimming right-side-up, belly down. The thing is I have a bit of sensory bias.

When I compare the blue whale to aquatic animals I do know, there are some differences in body features. First, the fish I am familiar with have backs that are typically rounded out and the bellies are flat.

Second, the facial features of blue whales are assembled very differently than other animals, land animals, I know. Imagine the mouth is the horizontal line that divides the face into top and bottom parts. In animals like mice, birds, and dogs, you encounter the nose, eyes and top of head, in that order.
Below the mouth are the chin and lower-jaw. The top half of the face tends to be bigger than the bottom half. I call this the top/bottom face ratio.
Like other marine mammals, the whale's nostrils (nose) is located on the top of the head. The eyes are to the side, but are still above the mouth. So, everything is still on its 'proper' side of the horizontal line but moved around. But the top/bottom face ratio is completely the opposite. Blue whales have a very large bottom half of the face. This combined with the flat back are the reasons why the blue whale look up-side down to me.

But think about it, that larger bottom jaw on the blue whale comes in handy. These guys are big eaters; they can consume approximately 8000 lbs of krill a day. They need those big, fleshy jaws to scoop up as much water an krill as they can.

I commend the producers of the show for using quality film footage and three-dimensional animated graphics to detail the life and perils of the blue whale. I certainly learned about their behavior and natural history, but it seems so did the research team. Despite being the largest animal in world, we know so little about this great creature. Even the teams of scientists are trying to put the pieces together. And that's exactly what National Geographic shows us. They give us a front row seat to the scientific process. As I sometimes tell students, science is a verb --it's what you do. Through the special, we witnessed these teams of scientists in the field and the lab doing science - the waiting, the measuring, the collecting, the stalking, the re-measuring, more waiting, observing, collecting, and observing some more. Science is laborious and many times we come back with nothing. it can be sad deflating at time.

However, it makes the success of getting data even sweeter. I was so enthralled with the progression of the story that I was as excited as the scientists were when they began to meet their research benchmarks.
1. They confirmed that these animals feed all year in the tropical oceans. This was confirmed, the way all mammalogists confirm it - they collected whale poop.
2. They observed what seemed to be very convincing signs of courtship behavior among adult whales. This would suggest that those tropical waters are also important for mating.
3. They observed a baby blue whale with its mother. Capturing this infant on film was historic. I must confess, I was disappointed to not have seen the live birth, but the 3-D animation sufficed my curiosity. Again, this provides evidence that these warm seas near Costa Rica are indeed an important habitat for the conservation of this species.

It was an awesome film and it completely met my expectations. Thanks, Nat Geo!


Ratty said...

As soon as you said the whale looks like it's swimming up-side down, I kept seeing it that way. I had to go back and lok at it several times, even knowing that it was right-side-up.

Shelly Cox said...

I LOVED Kingdom Of the Whale! My daughter and I watched it as well. I agree it is very difficult to get a proper perspective of these giants. Maybe we just THINKKKK they are swimming right side up, something to ponder...hmmm. BTW your sight is wonderful.

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