Whales are amazing and interesting creatures



A sei whale washed up on Isleford. PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTIN KHAN/NOAA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A sei whale washed up on Isleford. PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTIN KHAN/NOAA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A sei whale (say) was found dead on Islesford this past week. It was not a pretty sight but certainly very interesting and a reminder of what wonderful creatures are found in the waters around our island. I would rather have seen it swimming in the sea, but even in death, it was amazing and interesting to see. The body is too far gone to salvage, but the bones will be collected by scientists and reassembled in a museum.

The sei whale is an endangered species and is one of what are called the great whales. This group includes the blue whale, sperm whale, finback whale and sei. An adult sei whale can weigh 20 or more tons and grow from 40 to 50 feet or longer. They are fast swimmers and reach speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour for short periods of time.

It always amazes me that such large mammals thrive on a diet consisting of very small creatures such as krill, copepods, fish and plankton. These whales are able to consume 2,000 pounds of food a day. The sei whale is a baleen feeder, and it has 400 plates of baleen on each side of its mouth, like teeth. The baleen is a fingernail-like material called keratin. This whale attacks its food by opening the mouth and swimming towards the prey with its mouth wide open. The food gets trapped in the baleen. It makes you think of a very efficient strainer.

These and other whales travel long distances to obtain their food and often head into cooler waters during the summer months to feed. The mating season is in the winter months, and mothers give birth then to their babies. The gestation period is from 11-13 months. A single whale offspring is born to a female once every two or three years. The baby whale or calf is weaned at 6-7 months, but it takes 10 years for them to become sexually mature. An individual may live from 50-70 years if it is fortunate.

These whales are a protected species, but they face occasional threats from whalers, poachers and environmental disasters. At the moment, it is not known why the sei whale ended up dead on a Maine island. The only natural threat to such a whale might be a pod of killer whales. They are known to hunt the large whales.

A dead whale is not a pretty sight, and those biologists doing the necropsy and/or salvaging the bones for museums have a messy, smelly job.

Eagles, vultures and numerous mammals come from far and near to take part in the feast. On my recent trip to Newfoundland, we found a dead, young, humpback whale on the shore one day. Seeing it up so close was very interesting and close-ups of the skin were actually beautiful in color and design. Scavengers do not mind the smell of rotting flesh. Eagles, crows, ravens, gulls and bears were visiting the dead humpback. In nature, the death of one animal means good food available and a time of plenty for many. Fortunately for me, I have seen live humpback and several minke whales.

The sei whale does not arch its back and raise the flukes when it submerges, as the well-known humpback does. Normally, sei whales are observed far from the coastline in deeper ocean waters. They are frequent visitors to the Gulf of Maine. The name sei comes from the Norwegian word “seje,” meaning the fish we call a pollock. The sei whales got the name since they sometimes gathered off the shore of Norway at the same time the pollock arrived to feed on plankton.

Summertime is finally here, bringing rising temperatures. Flowers are blooming with great abandon, and wildlife families are very busy. My lawn is overdue for mowing and is showing many patches of the plant called “heal all” or “self heal.” The flowers are blue-purple, and the hairy leaves come in pairs. It grows in just about any type of soil. It’s not outstanding, but is an interesting member of the mint family. The flowers of self heal may be blue, purple, white and even pink and grow in cylindrical spikes.

Another tiny plant now growing in driveways easily goes unnoticed, but if you see a small plant with tiny conical pointed heads, pinch the blossom and sniff it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by a pineapple odor, for this is pineapple weed. If you enjoy learning about plants, two excellent guides that are favorites of mine are “Spring Wildflowers of New England” and “Summer and Fall Flowers of New England,” both by Marilyn Dwelley. I find them very useful.

A lovely musical call heard at twilight these summer evenings is probably the hermit thrush. You can always check out bird songs on the computer; it is a helpful tool.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

Latest posts by Ruth Grierson (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.