Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ireland's Eye Encounter

In the deepwater trenches of Newfoundland's Trinity and Bonavista Bays, there is a population of sperm whales that can be seen during the summer months. They're males; female sperm whales have the great good sense to stay in water that's warmer than 15 degrees Celsius (59F), considerably warmer than the water around Newfoundland. These whales are deep water feeders; they inhabit all the oceans of the world, but we're fortunate enough to be able to spot them just offshore. Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, or odontocetes, and the males can reach 16 metres (52 feet) in length, and they have the largest brain of any animal. But enough about the science -- the thing that makes seeing these whales so exciting is their elusiveness. They tend to dive so deep that they're often submerged for 45 minutes or more at a time. When they return to the surface, their single blowholes create a spout that angles close above the water, rather than the tall vertical spouts of many other species. This is a mixed blessing, since it makes them more difficult to spot but easy to identify. Because of this long, deep diving habit they tend to spend a lot of time at the surface between dives: about eight minutes on average, instead of the diving-and-surfacing cycle of baleen whales like humpbacks. It's at the end of this surfacing period, the whale will begin to signal its preparation for a deep dive by arching its back. After a final, deep inhalation, it raises its massive tail vertically out of the water before slowly, gracefully slipping beneath the surface. What a show! Thanks to Kris and Shawna Prince of Sea of Whales Adventures for their knowledge and expertise.

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