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A WHALE OF A STORY

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A WHALE OF A STORY

In the icy wastes of the Arctic there are creatures that have never set foot on land, mammals that roam the depths of the Arctic Ocean. To them there is no map of the seas that man would recognise, their maps are not printed, they do not have contours nor landmarks of any kind, their idea of where they are is formulated entirely by sound waves radiating through the cold waters where the temperatures hover around minus forty Celsius. Where man’s recognition of were he might be is dependent upon a two-dimensional infrastructure these mammals fix their position in a three- dimensional world of water. They are the whales. They have roamed the Artic for thousands of years and are adapted by evolution to cope with its extremes. There is very little landmass in this ocean and most of it was covered by pack ice which until comparatively recently acted as a gigantic reflecting device that repelled much of the more harmful rays of sunlight from our star away from the Earth and back into the vast expanse of space. This is changing rapidly and one thing that can portray just how fast that is changing is the actions of mammals such as the Bottle Nosed Arctic whale and its quest for food.

The Bottle Nosed whale feed upon a staple diet of a certain species of squid that breeds, feeds and lives in the incredible depths of the Arctic ocean as it has for thousands of years, The “Prey” has distinct breeding grounds which are familiar to the whale but when conditions which are ideal for the squid begin to change the breeding grounds begin to drift their location in search of conditions which are better suited to their requirement. Such a change in the conditions has forced the squid from the Arctic and into the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic and the Northern Pacific where the dissolved ice flowing from the melting icepack at the North Pole is being absorbed into two of the world’s major oceans. The effect of this seemingly insignificant migration of the breeding ground upon the ecosystem of the Arctic has brought the Bottle Nosed whales south from the Arctic to feed into waters where their acoustic maps are of little use and whilst they are capable of navigation it is more by trial and error than previously acquired knowledge, mistakes were bound to happen.

In January 2006 a whale was spotted in the River Thames by a man who could not believe what he saw, it was hardly surprising as the creature he saw was in fact a juvenile Bottle Nosed whale native to the Arctic Ocean but here it was in the river in London. A “Rescue” attempt sprang into action to coax the whale back to the open sea and the efforts to repatriate the whale to an environment more suited to its needs captured the imagination of a nation but few realised at the time what had brought the whale to the Thames or what was keeping it there, The answer is as surprising as it was confusing for the whale and it was as a direct result of something that most humans take in their stride every day, Sound.

The whale on its journey south had encountered many undersea noises it had not heard before most of which would have distracted a whale from its common goal the search for food. A passing submarine using sonar echoing off the Ocean floor to maintain its keel clearances, trawlers looking for shoals of fish with their echo sounders, oil exploration ships using sound waves that underwater sound like a sonic boom to identify oil bearing cavities, Oceanographic surveys mapping the sea beds and surface ships engaged in naval war games. The whale certainly encountered most of these on its southward migration along the Skerry’s of Norway and toward the Faeroes, Orkney and Shetland toward Scotland where it should have passed to the right skirting the west coast of Scotland and Ireland keeping Iceland to the distant right but instead it passed to the left of all of the island archipelagos and entered the North Sea which before the continental bridge sank below the sea was the lowland on both sides of a huge River Rhine of which the Thames was merely a tributary. The fate of the whale was entering that narrow cone of circumstance that tapered down to certain death given the conspiring conditions of its demise. As it crossed the North Sea from North to South the sounds of continental Europe and the UK would have been absorbed by the relatively shallow North Sea and whilst there was a way through the English Channel and escape to the open sea the Thames estuary would have seduced the whale to enter by the confusing land based sounds emanating from one of the Worlds largest cities London. As the “Brackish” water of the Thames began to change to fresh water it mimicked the conditions around its feeding grounds in the Arctic because as the pack ice melts it releases fresh water and not salt water into the Arctic Ocean in a change of state similar to distillation. The “Fresh” and “salt water are then mixed by the deep thermohaline currents of the oceans which can take years.
The result is a rise in oceanic water levels worldwide.

The whale despite the efforts of its rescuers was a confused species in a place foreign to its survival and did not regain the open sea. It was said to have died from pneumonia but no one was really sure why it had come to the Thames or what had killed it but a few seconds standing upon an ice floe in the Artic would illustrate how uncontaminated by sound the icy expanse of the Arctic is and by contrast those same few seconds on any one of London’s many bridges will betray the background sound of a city of eight million people. Beneath the waters of the Thames the whale would have heard it all whilst emitting its own panicked distress to its waiting school of fellow whales beyond the estuary. They would have answered but their echolocations would have been diluted to a level that was indiscernible above the noise of a city being absorbed by a very shallow river that was once a backwater of the Rhine. The Juvenile Bottle Nosed whale died in confusion.
A post mortem was carried out upon the whale which revealed the contents of its stomach, the whale had eaten countless plastic bags, silt and debris from the Thames riverbed, it was clearly still seeking the squid it came so far to find and in the murky water a plastic bag would look very like the squid of its staple diet.

Given the tragedy of the death of one whale where TV cameras and eight million people could watch it die the question has to be asked, “Could anything have been done to prevent it?”

If the Polar Ice caps were not diminishing the squid would still be where it had always been and there would have been no reason for the whale to forage this far south for food but the Polar Icecaps are melting and it is modifying the eco structure of the Arctic. The plastic bags in the water did not need to be there and in some countries they would not have been because they have recycling programs to minimise the problem. The planet is getting smaller because its population is getting larger and man can no longer ignore the damage that is being done to the environment every day. The ocean levels of the world are rising as I write, eight years ago there was an uninhabited island called Kiribati in the Pacific ocean, today there is no island there it was swallowed by the sea. In India where the Ganges and Bramaputra rivers empty into the bay of Bengal the Sundaban islands consisted of a number of Islets that formed the archipelago, one of those islands, Lohanchara was home to 10,000 people who fled when the low lying island was permanently consumed by the rising waters this year. Ten thousand homeless inhabitants now believe in “Global warming”. In Papua New Guinea on Carteret Island when the tide comes in it bubbles up through the floors and gardens of the flimsy houses and small gardens there, very soon the waters will not recede as the tide goes out and they too will be forced to leave. It seems obvious that the Icecaps are not the only contributors to rising sea levels, the snow caps and glaciers of the highest mountains on Earth are also receding.

The phenomena of global warming was once discounted as a myth but the evidence that it is a fact is becoming undeniable and the relatively small events that prove its existence are only a portent of what is to come on a scale so global that it will alter the maps of a complacent world forever.The disturbing thought is that the Arctic is comparatively small by comparision with the Antartic.There is ten times as much ice at the South Pole than at the North but both Polar Ice caps are melting almost equally as fast.

JP.


Posted: December 26, 2006 



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