Dear Readers, two whale-related stories today. First up, Orcas (Orcinus orca) have managed to sink three boats in the Straits of Gibraltar since 2020 (though out of more than 500 encounters that’s not bad odds). The whales appear to target the rudder of the boat, charging it until it’s broken or bent. But why? One theory is that the attacks stemmed from something that happened to a particular female whale, White Gladis. The author of a study on the whale attacks, Alfredo López Fernandez, believes that the whale suffered a traumatic event – either a collision with a boat, or possibly entanglement in illegal fishing nets. Since then, she started to attack the boats, and other whales have copied her – in at least one encounter, the sailors involved believed that a female whale was teaching her offspring to charge their boat.
Another theory is that this behaviour is just a fad – the whales are just playing, and certainly they show no interest once the boat has stopped. They don’t appear to be trying to target the humans (and their behaviour with prey animals such as seals, where they band together to topple a seal resting on an ice floe into the water) shows that they are able to devise complicated tactics to get at ‘food’ if they want to.
However, whales attacking boats that they believe have harmed them has a history – grey whales were known as ‘devil fish’ at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries, because mother whales would ram any whaling boats that they saw (and quite right too). Maybe the orcas really do see boats as a threat. However, this isn’t good news for them – the Iberian population of orcas is only 39 individuals, and ramming a boat can be more dangerous for the whale than it is for the humans. Let’s hope that the whales come to a decision that it isn’t worth the hassle soon – orcas are extraordinary creatures, and the world would be much worse off without them.
And now onto the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus). This cetacean can live to be over 200 years old, and weighs in at a sleek 80,000 kilograms, give or take a few grams. Scientists would expect such a large animal to have a higher rate of cancer than smaller creatures, simply because they have so many more cells, each of which could potentially become cancerous. However, like many other large animals, the rate of cancer in these animals is much lower than expected, something known as Peto’s paradox.
Not only do the whales have more copies of genes that suppress cancer, but they are also much more able to repair the DNA damage caused by exposure to carcinogens, ageing etc. The repairs are also much more accurate than those that occur in other animals, including humans, cows and mice. Alas, although we now know what happens to bowhead whales, we can’t just generalise from their mechanisms to ourselves, but it does cast an interesting light on why these marine creatures can live to such an advanced old age. In 2007, a bowhead was found dead with a type of harpoon manufactured between 1879 and 1885 still embedded in its body ( a sad inditement of our troubled relationship with these remarkable animals), which meant it was approximately 130 years old. However, since then a whale aged 211 was found, and the Australian national science agency, CSIRO, estimates that the natural lifespan of a bowhead is about 268 years.
You can read all about bowhead whales and their remarkable ability to avoid cancer here.
Also, another factoid. The bowhead whale has the largest mouth of any animal, measuring almost a third of the length of its body (they grow to about 50 feet long), and the baleen in its mouth (the structures that are used to filter out the plankton on which this giant feeds) is about 10 feet long. And it has the thickest blubber of any animal, with a maximum thickness of 19.5 inches.
Traditionally, bowheads have been hunted by indigenous peoples around the Arctic Sea, and a small number of whales are still taken every year (67 individuals, or .05 of the Bering Sea population). However we might feel about this, now that commercial whaling pressure has been removed, there is also growth in the number of whales in many other parts of the bowhead’s range, so I am allowing myself to feel the tiniest bit of cautious optimism, in the face of realism about climate change, seabed drilling, pollution etc etc etc. Maybe these tough, long-lived animals have more in their DNA than ‘just’ cancer resistance, and I’m sure that there is much more that we can respectfully learn from them.