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Humans help: hurt humpback.

What happens when creatures of the sea become ensnared in the trappings of the human world? Recently. on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, there was the story of a 45 to fifty-foot female humpback whale who had become entangled in a web of crab traps and lines. Weighing in at around fifty tons, she was in the middle of her migratory route from Northern California, down past Baja California, to the breeding grounds in Hawaii. Approximately 15,000 humpback whales rived in the North Pacific in the early 1900s, but the population was significantly hurt by commercial whaling. By the mid-Twentieth Century, there were fewer than 1000 whales left in existence. An international ban on commercial whaling was instituted in 1964, but humpbacks are still endangered. Today there are 5000 to 7500 humpbacks left in our world's oceans, and several thousand of these whales migrate down the coast of California. The humpback whales' two main predators are killer whales and humans.

Humpbacks are mammals, just like humans. While we don't have blowholes, we do share a number of traits with humpback whales: we are warm blooded, breathe air, give birth to and nurse' live young. The connection between the whale mother and its child is long lasting, just like most human's bonds to their mothers. Humpbacks have fun, just like us. Breeching is a kind of playful activity in which the whales lift two-thirds of their body out of the water and splash down. Whales breech for a variety of reasons including mating, cleaning of the skin, and probably just for the fun of it. Humpbacks have a unique pigmentation pattern located on the underside of their tail. This pattern can be likened to the unique combination of swirls on our human fingertips.

As the female humpback was swimming down the coast of California, she became entangled in nylon ropes. She was weighted down by twelve to fifteen ninety-pound crab pots, the lines of which were pulled so tightly that the rope was digging into the animal's flesh, leaving visible cuts.

She also had hundreds of yards of rope wrapped around her body--her tail, her torso, the back and the left front flipper, and there was a line in her mouth. The combined weight of pots and rope was pulling her down into the water, forcing her to struggle to keep her blowhole above the water. If her blowhole submerged for too long, she could drown.

The struggling whale was found about eighteen miles east of the Farralone Islands a few miles off the coast of San Francisco by a local fisherman who then radioed several marine mammal groups for help. Once organized, the rescue team set off to free the trapped whale. Diving below her and swimming around her so they could cut off all of her ropes was the only option, and an extremely risky one. Only one slap of her large strong tail could kill a rescuer. The four rescuers worked several hours cutting the ropes with a special curved knife. They eventually were able to free her from the entanglement of ropes and crab pots.

One rescuer commented on how the whale floated "quietly" with little to no movement the whole time. She did seem to give off a strange kind of vibration. It is likely she was singing at such a low resonance that her song could only be felt, not heard. One diver remarked that as he was cutting some of the rope in her mouth, the whale's eye was watching him intently. He said it was a life-changing moment feeling her song reverberate through his body and having her eye follow him so closely.

Humpback's songs are similar to our own songs; they range in octave throughout the whole piece, they contain repeating patterns, and amazingly enough, whales' songs do contain some elements of language, like our own. Their songs cover a wide range on the vocal scale, a total of eight octaves. The lowest octave cannot be heard by human ears. All whales within a given area seem to use the same songs. However, the songs change from one breeding season to the next. Only male humpbacks have been recorded singing: it is not known if the females sing. Is it possible that the diver felt, maybe for the first time in human history, female humpback vocalization?

When the whale realized she was free, she began to swim around in circles. She went to each diver, nuzzled him, pushed him around, and then swam to the next one. She seemed to be thanking each of them. "She seemed kind of affectionate," remarked another rescuer. He never felt threatened and was thankful for such an amazing and unbelievable experience.

For the complete story, see the December 15, 2004 San Franciso Chronical, www.sfgate.com.

More information on humpback whales and what you can do to help conservation efforts can be found at http://www.whalecenter.org or check out http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/humpback/.
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Title Annotation:Sea and Sky
Author:Soule, Teresa
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:836
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