Save the Cheerleader, Save the Whales

Hayden PanettiereHayden Panettiere a.k.a. "Claire" from one of our favorite TV series Heroes, was on Ellen this past week.   She talked about her recent trip to Taiji Japan to help stop the largest & cruelest slaughter of dolphins in the world.

According to the Save the Whales Again website — an initiative led by Pierce Brosnan and his wife, Keely Shaye Smith — Japanese fishermen will slaughter more than 25,000 dolphins & porpoises from October to April, as part of their annual hunt.   Hayden & other celebrities paddled out on surfboards to the Taiji dolphin-killing cove to try to form a memorial circle around the dolphins trapped in the nets.   Unfortunately, the celebrities were forced away by angry fisherman jabbing at them with hooks — and the dolphin killing continued.

Dolphins & whales targeted in this annual hunt include bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales & striped dolphins.   Several of the species are considered to be threatened with extinction.   Although some of the dolphins are simply captured for sale to marine swim parks, the majority of the dolphins & whales are killed for their meat.   Some of the dolphin meat has in Japan markets has been found to contain high levels of mercury & toxic pollutants.

But there’s still a little glimmer of hope…   International outrage over the hunt is beginning to intensify pressure to cease this brutal massacre.   You can help to encourage the Japanese government to put a stop to the senseless slaughter and ban the sell of dolphin meat by submitting a letter to their emabassy via the Oceana Action Center.   Or you can make an online contribution to the environmental activist organizations listed at the Save Taiji Dolphins Campaign site.   Your support will help keep conservationists in place in Taiji to monitor, witness, investigate, educate, & continue to push for the dolphin slaughter to end.

In the Pink

Photo of a rare Albino bottlenose dolphin spotted in Louisiana

Twice in recent weeks I’ve received emails  (thanks Karen W. & Stephen!)  tipping me off about news of a recent rare find — a pink bottlenose dolphin.   Sure, I’ve written before about the Indo-pacific Humpback dolphins in Hong Kong and there are the Amazon fresh-water river dolphins in South America, but this pink dolphin is much closer to home…

This pink bottlenose dolphin was photographed by Capt. Erik Rue during a fishing charter boat trip on Calcasieu Lake, an estuary just north of the Gulf of Mexico in southwestern Louisiana.

This marks only the 3rd reported sighting of an albino bottlenose dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico and is the most recent of a mere 14 recorded sightings in the entire world, with the earliest in 1962.

Where the common bottlenose dolphin is grey, this very rare albino calf has a bright bubblegum-pink coloration.   Albinism, a genetic disorder known to affect mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, & amphibians, is a condition that prevents the body from making the usual amounts of the melanin pigment.   This causes affected animals to have pink-hued skin and reddish eyes due to the underlying blood vessels showing through.

A Dolphin’s Tail

She swims, eats, & plays almost like like any toddler her age.

Only difference is that Winter is a dolphin — without a tail…   for now.

Winter the dolphin

Several months ago, I wrote about a remarkable breakthrough for a dolphin in Japan named Fuji who had been fitted with the world’s first prosthetic flukes.   But last month, an even more noteworthy & ambitious project involving an artificial limb and a dolphin is underway.   Winter, an 18-month old female Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf in Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium will be the first dolphin in the world to be fitted with a full prosthetic tail.

Though similar to the case of Fuji, Winter lost not only her flukes but also the peduncle (a vital wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin’s tail to move up & down) after getting caught in the buoy line of a crab trap near Cape Canaveral when she was only 3 months old.   Despite her severe wounds, she had begun learning to swim and play without her tail.   But after she was was rescued and transported to the facility, veterinarians became concerned that her spine might also suffer damage in the long run if other options weren’t pursued.   One of the world’s leading prosthetists, Kevin Carroll, who travels the country tackling the toughest human amputation cases, was consulted to help craft a solution.   But Carroll, of Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc., hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of the challenge of designing a prosthetic for a dolphin:

I came straight down, saw Winter (and) felt really sorry for her.   And I came in and I said, ‘OK, we’ll fit her little tail. Not a big deal.’   Little did I know it was going to take a year and a half to do.   With a person, when we fit a socket on them, we have one long, solid bone.   We don’t have to have the socket moving in every direction.   With a dolphin, it needs to move along with her full spine.

Carroll is developing a prosthetic tail system for Winter that includes a gel sleeve that attaches via suction so that it won’t irritate her sensitive skin.   Although there are many months of work & training to go and it remains to be seen how successful the prosthetic will be over the long-term, those involved are very optimistic as she’s acclimating to the first pieces of the artificial limb quickly.   And the lessons learned with the high-tech artificial dolphin tail are paying off in advances in the prosthetics field for people too — already, at least one wounded serviceman back from Iraq has benefited from Carroll’s research for Winter’s project!

Follow this link to read USA Today’s coverage about Winter and her prosthetic tail.   And be sure to check out Winter the Dolphin’s video sponsored by a new Florida fashion portal website LivFashion.

Irish Dolphins Have Accents Too!

The volume of new cetacean communications discoveries seems to be increasing by leaps & bounds.   In recent months scientists have learned that, just like humans, dolphins have individual names that they use when talking with each other.   And similarly, they’ve determined that dolphins listen in on each other’s conversations and dolphins even gossip about one another.

Now, research on about 120 bottlenose dolphins in the River Shannon near Carrigaholt, County Clare in Ireland conducted by Simon Berrow and other marine biologists at the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation has established that groups of dolphins have distinctive vocalizations pertaining to their location, or what amounts to unique regional dialectic accents.

Right, similar to the charming Irish brogue that you hear mimiced around every St. Patrick’s Day, scientists have discovered that Irish dolphins have a different accent than that of those found in other waters.

Ah, ’tis grand, indeed.   Faith and begora, what’s next?

Heavy Breathing with Dolphins

It’s been awhile since my last dolphin trivia blog entry, so I was getting all geared up to start off the month with a new batch of assorted dolphin facts.   But as I was culling through some notes I’ve been squirreling away over the past few weeks, a singular topic kinda emerged from the random bits and it just drew me in…

How Do Dolphins Stay Underwater So Long?

Dolphins are, of course, not fish – they have to surface in order to breath just like we do.   But where a dolphin’s lungs are comparable in size to those of other mammals, their respiratory system is anatomically unique.   Their lungs contain a lot more alveoli (air cells) and are comprised of two layers of capillaries instead of one.   Also, the membrane around the lungs & inner chest walls of dolphins is thick & elastic.   These anatomical differences provide for a dramatically more efficient exchange of gas &#8212 with each breath, a dolphin renews 80-90% of its lung capacity, whereas in humans, this number is normally 20% or less.

Given that dolphins can dive for as much as 15 minutes at a time and at depths of as much as 200m (about 600 feet), they have to make each breath last much longer than we can.   But even with hyper-efficient lungs, dolphins can’t take in enough oxygen to sustain long periods underwater.   Yet we know that they don’t run out of air and drown, so, how do they do it?

When diving, dolphins employ a kind of selective circulation where bloodflow to the skin, digestive system, some organs, & extremities slows (or even ceases), leaving only the heart, brain, & tail muscles working.   And due to the atmospheric pressure exerted on the dolphin during a deep dive, its lungs & rib cage collapse at around 100m down.

This collapse forces air out of the lungs into nasal passages & air sacs and squeezes even more blood out of its heart.   This kind of abrupt surge of blood rushing through a human’s cartoid artery would likely burst all the blood vessels in the brain and result in instant death.   But in dolphins, the blood from the aorta is forced into a sponge-like mesh of capillaries that slows the blood and reduces the pressure before it reaches the brain (imagine a sponge over the end of your garden hose for an idea of how this works).

Dolphins don’t suffer "bends" or other decompression sickness that human divers do even though they dive deeper and more frequent.   In fact, they suffer no ill effects of breathing immediately after diving a considerable depth.   Primarily, this is because, while humans breathe highly compressed air as they descend, dolphins hold their breath during dives.

Credit Where It’s Due
Bits & pieces of this info were gleaned from an array of websites but I really hit the jackpot with two sites in particular:   Michael Harwood’s The Amazing Bodies of Dolphins essay and The [Dolphin] Respiratory System chapter from the Thinkquest Team’s "Dolphins: The Oracles of the Sea".   Check these sites out for more interesting info!


Dolphin HotLine Open For Business

Friendly dolphin chat

Not content to just be busybodies of the ocean or scandalous seafaring rumormongers, now dolphins in south Florida are getting a phone line so they can be all the more chatty!

Okay, actually a marine mammal rehabilitation facility near Key Largo opened a dolphin "chat line" of sorts on Saturday, April 7th, hoping to teach a deaf dolphin’s unborn calf to communicate.

A twice-stranded pregnant Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Castaway has been recovering at the Marine Mammal Conservancy since Jan. 30th.   Not long after she was nursed back to health, marine biologists began to suspect that Castaway was deaf.   Testing performed in February by the National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed that Castaway doesn’t respond to auditory stimuli and is considered to be essentially deaf.   Dolphins rely upon their sense of hearing for echolocation — the means by which they hunt, socialize, navigate, and defend themselves against predators.   MMC specialists doubt that Castaway could’ve continued to survive in the wild without this most elemental skill.

So the attention now turns to Castaway’s unborn calf who, given it’s response to ultrasound testing, is believed to have normal hearing abilities.   So the conservancy’s staff decided to electronically connect Castaway’s habitat to that of a lagoon at Dolphins Plus, a marine research & educational facility a few miles down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.   Underwater speakers & microphones were installed at both locations and connected via phone lines.

MMC’s president Robert Lingenfelser hopes that this will give Castaway’s calf, due in early May, an opportunity to get acclimated to normal dolphin vocalization sounds and learn how to communicate. You can visit the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s Castaway page to follow the story as it unfolds.

You’ve just gotta love Vann Hall’s tagline on this phone chat newsbit:

         "We’re wet, naked, and waiting for your call!"

Flipping Faux Flukes

Fuji, a 37 year old dolphin at Okinawa’s Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, developed a rare disease in 2002.   After nearly 2 months of antibiotics & transfusion, she underwent surgery to remove the diseased parts last Fall.   She completely recovered from the disease, although she lost 75% of her tail flukes.

But don’t fret, things are looking up for Fuji.   She’s been fitted with the world’s first prosthetic fin, courtesy of Bridgestone. Yup, Japan’s largest tire maker developed the $83,000 prosthetic tail flukes applying the same materials used for Formula One race car tires.

A picture of Fuji's prosthetic flukes created by Bridgestone   Fuji swims in Dolphin Lagoon with her new artificial tail

Click here to watch a video of Fuji in action with her new artificial flipper.

2007: Year of the Dolphin

2007: The Year of the Dolphin

Kicking off the new year in a grand fashion, the United Nations has officially declared 2007 to be the Year of the Dolphin. The campaign, officially launched by its patron H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, hopes to help raise worldwide awareness about the plight of the marine mammal and bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Dolphin Trivia, Part II

After yesterday's depressing post about the Chinese Yangtze River dolphin going extinct, I thought it'd be nice to wrap up the year on an "up" note.   So, in continuation of my previous installation of dolphin trivia, here's Part II:

  • Dolphins are bald — their skin contains no hair follicles, sebaceous or sweat glands. &nsbp; Their skin is 10-20 times thicker than human skin and is lined with hydrodynamic ridges that allow fast dynamic swimming.
  • Dolphins can sunburn easily and will often take advantage of shade to protect themselves.
  • Dolphins move their eyes independently (similar to a gecko lizard) which allows them to see from different angles at the same time when hunting or watching for predators.
  • Dolphins have a "chambered" stomach.   The forestomach does the mechanical breakdown of whole food.   Their conical teeth are only used to grasp (not chew) food.
  • Since they lack an olfactory nerve, dolphins have no sense of smell.   They do have a sense of taste, however, and often show personal preferences for certain kinds of fish.
  • Dolphins don't have vocal cords.   Instead, they use the muscles inside the blowhole produce squeaks, clicks, moans, warbles & other communicative sounds.
  • Dolphin mothers often whistle continuously for several days after giving birth.   Initially, the mother's whistle is uniform, but then it acquires a "signature" characteristic.   Scientists believe this is how she teaches her offspring its name.