My head feels as thick as whale blubber after a weekend of listening to and observing over 14 scientists and researchers share research notes and data that relates to the overall well-being (or not) of the Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale or the California Gray Whale as it is more commonly called.
Subject matter ran from enticing to dry to WOW. Participants represented Russia, Canada, the United States and Mexico. They came from prestigious universities, biological laboratories, governmental agencies and research centers.
For two days, at the historic Fort Mason in San Francisco, the discussions included overviews of gray whales as historical generalists, telemetry research of gray whale at Chukota, Russia, the implication of under-ice phytoplankton bloom in the Chukchi Sea, potential impact of killer whale predation on the gray whale, whales and seismic exploration, and the effects of ocean acidification on marine food webs.
Okay, quit yawning. It was exciting because brand new information was shared and recorded and the workshop’s goal to gather as many pieces of the puzzle to form a complete picture neared reality.
But the real story is my 4-year-old grandson, Quinlan. And this blog is for Quinlan.
A dozen or more of us traipsed from our Lombard St. motel for dinner at a nearby tapas bar. It was a good way to get to know each other. I landed next to Dr. Dennis Litovka from the Marine Mammal Laboratory, Chukota-TINRO, Russia. He handed me his card. The lights were low and I could not read it for anything. “My name is Dennis,” he said in his heavily accented English.
Dennis, I learned by evening’s end, studies not only whales but polar bears and other marine mammals that live in that frozen hotbed of climate change study. Polar bears…oh I must tell Quinlan that I met a man who knows everything about polar bears.
Next to the table and across from me was Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Marine Mammal Scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium. He was there to discuss killer whale predation on the gray whale population. Ah, the mother lode of dream scientists to tell Quinlan about….polar bear AND killer whale experts!
Back to my room, I texted my daughter, Quinlan’s mother, “Tell Q that Moire has met some polar bear and killer whale experts.”
(Also back in my room , and in good light, I discovered why I couldn’t read Dr. Litovka’s card. It wasn’t my eyes. It was in Russian.)
At 6:30 Saturday morning my phone rang. “Moire,” Quinlan began, “Can you ask these men some questions for me?”
So I did. I temporarily removed my workshop hat for my grandmother hat.
“Good morning, Dennis,” I greeted the Russian scientist as he sipped the hot coffee we readied for the morning workshop session. (I attended as a volunteer to help the facilitator, The California Gray Whale Coalition, tend to the business of running a workshop smoothly.)
“My grandson called me this morning and wanted me to ask you a question. He wants to know, why do polar bears like to live in the snow?”
I’m pretty sure I threw a big snowball out there. First, Dr. Litovka presents himself as friendly and accessible, but he was there for serious questions. His eyes showed surprise at my question and he laughed out loud. “Why do they like snow?” he smiled through his Russian-style English.
“That’s right, why do polar bears like to live in the snow?”
“Well, I like the question. It’s a good question, and not one I have been asked before. So, I would say, that polar bears are white and furry because they have to live in the snow—it is the Arctic. And because they must hide and hunt for seals who hide in the white ice, polar bears like the snow because it hides them from the seals.”
So, Quinlan, that is why polar bears like to live in the snow.
Quinlan had another question for the Russian marine mammal expert. “Are blue whales really the biggest animal in the world?”
“Tell Quinlan this,” Dennis began. “Blue whales are the longest mammal in the world but bowhead whales are the heaviest.”
I didn’t know bowhead whales were the heaviest.
There were more questions, but these had to do with killer whales. I waited for the evening’s wine and cheese social hour.
Dr. Barrett-Lennard was my go to guy for this one.
“I hope you are enjoying this workshop,” I greeted the killer whale expert. After a few small-talk sentences I went in for the killer question.
“My grandson wants me to ask you if killer whales eat penguins and why leopard seals eat penguins.”
“He sounds like an Antarctic guy?” Lance queried back with a laugh. “Does he ask these kind of questions all the time?”
“For now. He’s been watching Happy Feet.”
“Tell Quinlan that killer whales rarely eat penguins…but…well, maybe you shouldn’t tell him how they eat penguins when they do.”
It’s not 4-year-old rated material, but, Quinlan, penguins, like most animals that live in extreme cold areas, have layers of fat to keep them warm. This is what the killer whale finds tasty on the rare occasion that penguin is served—more as a snack. And to answer your question about why leopard seals eat penguins, Dr. Barrett-Lennard, explained that leopard seals do indeed eat penguins, and it is because they like the same fat that the whales prefer. Leopard seals eat many other kinds of warm-blooded prey, as well.
But, what he also wanted Quinlan to know, if it is okay with Quinlan’s mother, is that nature makes for quick, maybe painless kills. It’s people who use animals for our needs that are not always kind. And I’ll edit the part about penguins used as fuel. When you are older, Quinlan, we’ll talk about that.
Quinlan, each of these scientists, and the ones listening in, found your questions relevant and thoughtful. They hope that maybe someday your curiosity will lead you to a place where you will be the expert to answer the questions about nature from another curious 4-year-old boy or girl.
I’ll report more about the California Gray Whale Coalition Scientific Workshop on Neptune911.wordpress.com