many whale questions

From: Pieter Arend Folkens (
Date: Sat Nov 17 2001 - 03:43:37 EST

>From Anuj and Max: What is the most interesting species of whales that you
>know about?

An extinct whale from about 4 million years ago had two enlarged
teeth that pointed down just like the tusks of the walrus. It is a
classic example of convergent evolution. After that whale went
extinct, the early walrus ancestors moved into the
sea-bottom-clam-mucking foraging niche and developed the long tusks
on walrus we know today.

>How much spermaceti does a sperm whale have?

Depends on the age, sex, and size of the animal. Spermaceti is a waxy
oil contained in the spermaceti organ in the head of the sperm whale.
It may have several functions, most notably in echolocation. A
good-sized sperm whale will have over a hundred gallons of spermaceti
in its head.

>What do you know about Mesoplodon and the new beaked whale?

Mesoplodon is the genus name of a group of deep-diving "Ziphiids," or
beaked whales. It is the most diverse genus in Cetacea, but also the
among the least known. Dr. Jim Mead did an excellent review of
Mesoplodons in Ridgway and Harrison edited volumes Marine Mammal
Handbooks for Academic Press. I suggest you find a copy of that for
more detail.

I know all about the new beaked whale, but I can't tell you anything
-- at least not yet because the official scientific description has
not been published. There are only about a dozen of us that know the
details of the new critter, including the new taxonomic and common
names, and a few dozen more who are aware of the animal with little
other detail. I have a new field guide coming out early next year,
but we can't include the new species, even though I know about it. We
all have to wait until the formal presentation in a peer-reviewed

>From Erin and Ashley: What is a crittercam? What whales do you mostly
>attach the camera to? Is your whole family in to whales or are you the
>only one? Is it hard to attach the crittercam to a whale? How many whales
>have you attached a crittercam to?

CritterCam is a video camera and recording deck housed in a metal
cylinder with a dome viewing port in front and flotation in the back.
There is also a hydrophone (underwater microphone) and VHF
transmitter (to help find the thing) in the package. It is attached
to the whale with a dinner plate-sized suction cup deployed with a
long pole from a small boat. My CritterCam work (as the boat driver)
has been exclusively with humpback whales, though other CritterCam
teams have attached packages to blue and sperm whales. We have been
most successful with the humpbacks. It is difficult to attach the
package in a manner that does not disturb the whale. It takes a lot
of time, patience, and a good working understanding of the behavior
of whales and the temperament of individual whales we hope will carry
the package. Every time we have a successful deployment we have a
sticker we place on Mike Heithaus's helmet and on the center console
of the boat. (Mike is the one who handles the deployment pole.) We
have over a dozen stickers now with over 24 hours of underwater video
taken by a whale.

Both my son (now 13) and daughter (now 8) have been with me in Alaska
with the whales.

>From Denzel and George: What kind of surprises have you found with the
>crittercam? Have any of the whales that you put the camera on been eaten?

This past summer we had the most successful deployment of CritterCam
so far. It produced many surprises, and it confirmed some of our
theories about humpback whale feeding behavior. One surprise was that
these whales swim down to the bottom and use their flat heads to sort
of scoop fish up off the bottom and into the water column. Once the
fish are disturbed, they herd the fish to the surface, flashing with
their tails and flippers, and often vocalizing to scare the fish. No
whale that we put the camera on has been eaten. However, I think you
meant your question to ask if any whale has eaten a critter cam. The
answer to the latter question is also no. We place the camera on the
back, behind the gape of the mouth.

>What is your favorite species of whale and why?

I have different favorites for different reasons. I feel the fin
whale is the most beautiful of the lot. Kilelr whales are the most
intelligent, and are fascinating for that reason. I have a special
affection for the Vaquita, as it is one of the two most endangered
species, and one of the least known.

>From Laura B. and Karen: Is it hard to put on a crittercam? Does the
>crittercam ever rub off of a whale?

Yes, it is difficult. Our first year of the project we got only one
camera on in two weeks of trying. Our second year we got eight on,
but only two worked. (Camera failure on the others.) This past summer
we were very successful. I guess experience and patience paid off.
About 10% of the time the camera package is knocked off a whale by
another whale swimming very close.

>When did you first become interested in whales?

When I was in the third grade, my class took a field trip to a place
called Pyramid Hill, more commonly called Sharktooth Hill. The place
is littered with Late Middle Miocene marine fossils, including
sharks. That summer for my birthday, my mother took me and 8 of my
friends back to Pyramid Hill to dig for sharks teeth. On that visit I
collected the fossils of a small sperm whale. That was in 1961.

>From Ben W. and Ben L.: Have their ever been any whales with 3 blowholes?
>How old is the oldest species of whale whose bones have been found?

Never, only two and one blowholed whales. It depends on how one
defines a species. Protocetaceans (four-legged ancient critters with
head bones that are similar to later whales) show up by around 50
million years ago, though they probably had a start over 60 million
years ago. The earliest members of family that survived to the
present first appeared less than 39 million years ago (sperm whales
and right whales). Most modern species are probably not much more
than 2 to 5 million years old.

>From Laura and Rachel: What have you seen with the crittercam?

In addition to the above, we have also seen whales circle schools of
fish and open their mouths to catch them.

>Where do you live?

A small northern California town called Benicia, though my summers
are spent in Alaska.

>Where are you from originally?

I am a native Californian, though my father is Dutch (Friesland,
actually) and my mother German.

>Is the whale your favorite type of marine mammal and if so why?

There are around 80 species of whale and 120 species of marine
mammals. I have a variety of favorites in that set. (See above.)

>From Jon and Neelum: What is the newest species of whale that you
>discovered? How much oil can one whale produce?

I have dug up a new species of extinct whale. As for modern "new
whales" I have discovered none, though I am included on the team that
will be describing a new species of beaked whale. This new species
will be announced the end of this month and formally presented
sometime next year. My job is to reconstruct the physical appearance
of the species.

>From Cassandra, Matt, and Bo: Do you know of any websites where we can
>watch crittercam videos?

I believe Nation Geographic has a section that shows some CritterCam
clips. There is a VHS video out about the search for giant squid that
includes CritterCam footage from a sperm whale.

>Is the beaked whale extinct?

There are more than a dozen beaked whale species. None that have been
discovered in modern times have gone extinct. There are archaic forms
of beaked whales that lived millions of years ago that have gone
extinct as better forms evolved.

>From Jehane and Tim: What is your most important discovery about whales?

I have no way to gauge the importance of any discoveries I've made.
Most discoveries are a team effort. My most important contributions
are in the area of the accurate depiction of the external appearance
and diversity of marine mammals.

>How many portraits have you drawn of new species of beaked whales?

I have produced the "official" portraits of the last two newly
described species of beaked whales, and of a species that was
previously known only by weathered skulls, but has been seen recently
live at sea.

>Why are you interested in beaked whales?

I like working on the edge of scientific discovery, and having
something that I can contribute. Beaked whales happens to be an area
where my skills are useful and appreciated. The respect I get from
colleagues whom admire is very gratifying, even though it is in a
very small corner of the scientific world.

>Do you find the fossils for your drawings? How do you figure out
>what the animals whose fossils you have once looked like?

I have found some of the fossils I use as references, but most
references come from other sources. The reconstruction of the
physical appearance of extinct species begins with looking at the
skeletal anatomy. The bones tell me where muscles attached, and how
big the muscles were. I then use related modern animals to find clues
to how the skin hangs over the muscles, and in some cases, what the
pigmentation pattern may have looked.

>From Samantha: When did you first start drawing whales? Why is being an
>artist important to you?

Remember the story above about my birthday discovery? Back in school
that fall I started drawing what I thought the Miocene whale looked

I believe I am more an illustrator than an artist (in the sense of a
fine artist). It may seem odd, but I am uncomfortable being
considered a part of the fine art realm of whale art. There is an
"artist" out there who promotes himself as the greatest marine artist
ever, who says he is committed to educating the world about whales.
The problem is that most of his information and representations of
the animals is resoundingly incorrect. His most accurate work comes
from copying the work of others, including my work. I simply do not
care to be a part of something that lacks integrity and is
undeserving of respect.

It is important to me to over come the damage done by these shameless
self promoters by producing good and accurate work for science and
education. Also, most people will never see a live whale in the wild,
and no one to date has seen all of the whales. Through my work I can
bring the entire assemblage of marine mammals to people for study and

Here's a test for the whole class: without using a book -- just off
the top of your head -- name as many marine mammals as you can. Total
the number you can think of. How many did you get: ten, fifteen,
twenty, thirty? How close is your number to 120? (120 is the number
of recognized living marine mammal species.) Through my books and
posters I hope to educate people about all those other critters
between what you know and the total number that represents the
diversity of marine mammal species in the world today.

>From Hannah and Andrew: Do you like to draw anything else besides marine

I can draw a wide variety of other subjects, but I like to draw what
I know, and I know marine mammals the best. I have illustrated a book
on human osteology (bones). My favorite thing to do is sculpt
life-sized marine mammals. Most recently I created a life-sized
bowhead whale for the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska. I
also designed and sculpted the killer whales for the Free Willy films
and humpbacks for Star Trek IV.


Pieter Folkens
Alaska Whale Foundation

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