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Q&A ON WHALES : Aquatic Biologist Says Sightings Are Common, but Beachings Rare

July 25, 1993|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER. Julie Smith, an aquatic biologist, runs the Floating Laboratory at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point. On research trips around Dana Point Harbor, Smith teaches students and others about all sorts of marine life, including whales

Question: How common are whale sightings in this part of the world?

Answer: They're very common. There are lots of different species of whales right off our coast. The most common things we typically see are dolphins or bottle-nosed dolphins. This year, we've also seen some killer whales--they were just three miles out off of Aliso Beach. There were sightings of blue whales and fin whales this year, as well as pilot whales.

Every winter, we see the gray whale. Dolphins are constantly going up and down the coast in search of food and there are also some resident pods of whales in Huntington Beach and the Capo Beach area.

Q. What about sightings of the Minke whale?

A. I have never seen one down here, but they're all over the world, too. They're found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Q. Shouldn't the whale be up north now, migrating?

A. A lot of species do head up into the Alaska area because the food is so abundant right now. It's a great place to be; they can take advantage of all the different food resources up there while the weather is good. But there are some (whales) here year-round. It's part of their normal range.

Q. How often do whales get beached?

A. There was one that washed up already dead on the beach near here a couple of years ago. I haven't had too many reportings of beachings of whales in recent years (in Orange County). It does happen, though. (Experts) don't know why.

Sometimes one whale will beach and others will follow. Scientists don't really know why that is, they're trying to do behavioral studies to figure it out. It could be the whales are sick, which is causing some disorientation or something for them to come so close to shore.

They could have a parasite, something that's making them weak. Oftentimes, it's because they are weak and they get disoriented and they just wash up onto the shore.

Q. How common are parasites in whales?

A. During this time of the year, there are a lot of parasites in the water and viruses in the water. It seems like the first yearlings are really susceptible to it. Maybe this is (the whale's) first season, and it became separated a little bit from its pod. Maybe it has a parasite and is malnourished, which is pretty common. They'll take it (to Sea World), try to feed the whale, nurse it, try to get it strong again and put it back in the water.

Q. How dangerous is it for the whale to get beached?

A. It would depend on a lot of things, like the state of the whale when it washes up on the beach. You need to try and keep the whale as comfortable as possible. What rescuers have to do is keep the whale moist so it won't dry out in the sun. Sometimes they'll try to dig a path to help the whale out to get it back in the water.

Being an insulated mammal and being warmblooded, you need to worry about it baking on the beach. The main thing is to keep the whale from stressing out, try not to get it too stressed out to where it would do harm to itself. The whale is so heavy that they (sometimes) end up being crushed by their own weight.

Since they have lungs and they breathe air (they can survive on the beach). The main thing is the body temperature, you don't want them to get overheated on the beach. They're out of their element, definitely, and they could be (preyed) on.

Whale Facts, Figures

Whales originated 70 million years ago from land-dwelling, carnivorous mammals and belong to the scientific order Cetacea.

There are two main types of whales: odontoceti, or toothed whales, and mysticeti, or baleen, non-toothed whales. Whales range in size from small porpoises about four feet long, 100 pounds, to the massive blue whale, which can be 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons.

Whales are found in oceans around the world as well as in some rivers.

Baleen whales eat plantkon, small crustaceans and fish by either swimming with their mouths open or gulping large mouthfuls of water and then straining out the food. Baleen whales have pairs of blowholes, though toothed whales have single blowholes.

Whales have excellent hearing, but baleens have a poor sense of smell. Toothed whales cannot smell at all.

Unlike toothed whales, which travel in schools, baleens live solitary lives except during the breeding season.

Baleens migrate seasonally, as far as 3,000 miles.

Minke whales are the smallest baleens, born at about 10 feet and growing to 30 feet in adulthood.

Minkes are blue-grey on top and white on the bottom, and dwell in seas all over the world.

Rorqual whales, which include minkes, have long grooves on their throats and chest. Each whale has 10 to 100 grooves one to two inches deep, enabling the whale to open their mouths wide and gulp enormous quantities of food and water.

Researched by JODI WILGOREN

Sources: Encyclopedia Brittanica, World Book Encyclopedia, Sea World

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