Endangered Species Handbook

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     While whales are revealing their intelligence and amazing communication abilities to scientists in one part of the world, they are being ruthlessly slaughtered in another.  Once whales swam in enormous numbers in all oceans, communicating in complex sounds that resonate through the water.  The beautiful and eerie songs of the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) resound for a thousand miles.*  Each complex song lasts as long as half an hour, and different populations of these whales improvise their own dialects, evidence of an extremely evolved communication system.  We are unable to decipher this language, and our knowledge of whales is extremely primitive. Hydrophones lowered into the icy waters near Bowhead Whales have picked up strange calls ranging from groans to trumpet-like blasts to loud squeaks.*  Through limited contacts, whales have shown intelligence and sensitivity.  They soon become tame and friendly when approached by whale watchers.  In recent years, Pacific Humpback Whales have approached boats of whale watchers in the manner of the friendly Gray Whales (Eschrictius robustus), which swim up to tourists in Baja California, Mexico.  The Humpbacks swim close to these boats and turn on their sides, flapping their huge white flippers on the water surface. 
*These sounds can be heard in “Gentle Giants of the Pacific: Humpback Whales” (Sierra Club Films) and “The Bowhead Whale” (Wildlife in Production Films and Discovery Productions, 1998), which give an intimate glimpse into the lives of these whales and their feeding, habitat and the animals that share their world.
     The devotion of whales to one another has been observed for centuries by whalers whose boats were attacked by distraught and angry whales after a member of the pod was harpooned.  Carl Sagan, in Cosmos (1980), considered whaling to be monstrous when, instead, we should be seeking to communicate with these "intelligent masters of the deep."  Whaling destroyed millions of these marine giants, pushing them close to extinction.  A half century of protection has not resulted in their recovery.  Many are still killed illegally.  Whaling nations, many of them among the wealthiest in the world, continue to kill smaller whales openly, often in defiance of international agreements.

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