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Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Mystery" solved!

Back in 2004, I witnessed an amazing thing as the L12 family group was traveling south towards Lime Kiln Lighthouse. One whale, either a female or a young male, came into view way ahead of the rest of the whales. It swam directly at the few of us sitting on the rocks, and stopped in the kelp bed just off of the lighthouse. Then, for the next few minutes, it stayed on the surface and continuously vocalized into the open air. It's one of the few times I've been able to identify a call type when a whale vocalizes on the surface (it was S2iii), and the only time I have ever heard a whale vocalize on the surface in succession again and again and again. Whenever the whale submerged, it continued vocalizing (as we heard over the hydrophones), and whenever it surfaced it was completely draped in kelp. It's one of the most bizarre encounters I've ever had with the whales, as it left all of us on shore asking helplessly "What are you trying to tell us?!" As the rest of the L12s came into view much farther offshore a few minutes later, the whale turned and head out, joining up with them and continuing on their way.

My friend Jeanne was there to witness it with me, and between the video she took and the photos I took we tried in vain to identify the whale. It was no use - the whale was backlit, and every time it surfaced it was so covered in kelp it was impossible to discern anything about the saddle patch. We finally let it rest and settled for the fact that we would never know who the mystery whale was.

Well, a recent project of ours has been to start developing an eyepatch guide for the whales. In addition to the saddle patch that sits just behind the dorsal fin, each whale also has a unique eyepatch. We humans don't use eyepatches all that often to ID the whales since the differences can be subtle and we don't always get a good look at their eyepatch when they surface - in the past eyepatches have pretty much just used to confirm a saddle patch ID and that's about it. The whales, on the other hand, may very whale use eyepatch shape to tell one another apart. Anyway, Jeanne and I are slowly building our eyepatch database with hope that we can ID whales who spyhop, and other instances where you just don't get a good look at the saddle. Well, today we had our first ever "eyepatch breakthrough", as Jeanne went back and looked at her video of what we've come to call the "above water vocalization incident" - it turns out the mystery whale is (how appropriate): Mystery L85!! You can watch a short video clip from this incident on Jeanne's blog here.


The above image illustrates how eyepatches can be different. The one on the left is an unusual shape. The one in the middle has some black "beauty mark" spots in the middle of it. The one on the right has indistinct edges - notice especially how along the right side it looks "smudged".

3 comments:

Vickie said...

Special story. Wouldn't you love to know what he was trying to tell you? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

J22 is the one in the middle. I love her black spots!

--Courtney

Monika Wieland said...

Vickie - I know! Someone once told me incidents like that may become the Rosetta stones of figuring out how whales communicate.

Courtney - you got it. She has one of the most distinct eyepatches that got me to start looking at the others.