Great creatures deserve respect

Great gray whales have the longest migration route of any animal known, from the Bering Sea and Chukchi Seas, north, to the Baja Mexican waters, south, roughly 5,000 to 6,000 miles.

Whidbey Island is not only located along their migratory route, but they can be seen all the way around our island. That makes ours one of the most active and largest whale watching communities in the entire nation, supported by local beach owners, professionals, whale interactive groups nationwide, the Navy and other marine agencies.

Gray whales are identified by the barnacles that they collect on their outer skin layer. Photo I.D. can be made by patterns of these barnacles. It’s not unusual that by the time the great grays have reached the age of 40, they would have collected over a “ton” of these barnacles.

As you watch them, you’ll notice they travel differently. Grays are mostly loners or swimming with their calf.

Whales are always awake. They can rest or doze, but genuine sleep is not known to them because their breathing is a conscious mechanism. If a whale were to be knocked unconscious for any length of time, say by a curious boater, he would die because of this physical factor.

You can watch them emerge rythmatically every 15 to 20 minutes. Their inhalations and exhalations differ from human beings. Humans only exhale about 15 percent of what they inhale, while whales exhale 80 to 90 percent.

Their hearing mechanisms are far more involved than human years. They actually hear throughout the whole skeletal length of their body. This is why sonar research can be so devastating to them.

Our own Whidbey Island Naval Air Station has long recognized this physical trait of these whales and works closely with our whale watcher groups so they know where the whales are in the water.

Although grays whales are known to be the friendliest of all in the whale community, in past decades they were called “Devil Fish,” because mothers attacked the small, flimsy and vulnerable whaling boats in an effort to protect their calves.

Eventually, vigorous hunting of whales began and, as we all know, a favorite method was to injure the “inquiring calf” first in order to harpoon the following protective mother!

Grays are “baleen whales” who scoop their food up from the ocean floor in huge mouthfuls, then use their tongue to push and filter the mud and sand for the the tasty microscopic food filtered through feather-like hair protrusions (baleen) in their mouth.

Did you know orca (killer) whales prefer the tongue of the gray whale the most? Or that whales have been noticed to be either right or left hand users? For example, most gray whales roll to the side scraping their forward front-side fin on the ocean floor, scooping up their food. The right handers roll to their right side, consistently. The left handers consistently roll to their left side.

Besides fin identification, researchers can tell a whale’s age by earwax accumulation and a particular type of substance they have in their eye mass.

Gestation lasts about 13 months. Whale brains are about four to five times larger than human brains. Grays can live over 60 to 70 years.

Just one look into the baseball-size eye of the great gray whale has left many people feeling they have looked into the depth of his soul. Many describe it as a spiritual experience.

Increasingly, researchers are studying emotions and cultural traits in whales. Whales have their own distinct family language known only to that particular pod and researchers have discovered the memory mechanisms found in these great mammal creatures, as well as clues to their emotional capabilities.

Emotional and cultural traits are widely studied and examined in mankind, but researchers are just beginning to discover these in our fellow earth friends.

As I watch the outside world from my dining room table, I see all kinds of fowl and other marine life before me. Our portion of Penn Cove waters is never without a group of ducks, a seal, a seagull, an eagle and, on occasion, a whale or pod of whales!

I think of them as my extended family and support group. Our four children have gone off to faraway places, but I have my extended family to fill the gaps.

They deserve our respect. I hope this letter will encourage you to learn more about them as I did.

Carol Binschus lives on Penn Cove.

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