The history of research in the field of marine mammals in general is short. Whale research is no exception. Despite a continuous flow of new data on both whales and dolphins we still know surprisingly little about these enigmatic creatures. The more questions are answered the more we realise we don't know. The greatest problem being that they are very difficult animals to study. Many live far from land, spend a large proportion of their lives under water and show only a small portion of their bodies when they rise to breath. One area where a reasonable amount of whale research has been done is in the area of communication. Because whales live in a medium in which visual communication is difficult even in the clearest of tropical seas, whales and indeed dolphins, communicate by sound which travels over 4 times faster in water than on land. Sounds produced by cetaceans in general vary enormously; from the squeaks and clicks of many dolphin species to the long haunting song of the male Humpback Whale. Some of these animals produce a repertoire of sound that is specific to the individual. This is especially true of Sperm Whales, which produce a series of sounds called "codas" that serve as unique signatures for each individual whale within the family or social group. Such are the sounds of the Humpback Whale that they may be heard above the water or resonating through the hull of a boat several miles distant from the animals from which the sound is emanating. However, the most remarkable sound producers are the Fin and Blue Whales. Their vocalisations may be heard, with the right equipment, over a distance of 2000 miles. It is not clear whether these low frequency sounds are for communication or navigation purposes.
Study of Whales
Much of what we already know from the study of whales has come from dead animals and those kept in captivity. Much can still be learnt post mortem when animals strand and die or are washed up dead on a beach. If this examination is carried out in a laboratory then detailed information can frequently be gleaned on the age of the animal, pollutant levels, what the animal has recently eaten in addition to a study of genetic material. Observation of captive animals has its limitations. Primarily, only the smaller varieties may be kept in captivity, which means that much of the behavioural research has been carried out on dolphin species. There is an argument that captive animals will show an entirely different behavioural repertoire to that of wild relatives distorting any conclusions drawn from this type of study of whales. Much information on natural behaviour, diving capabilities, feeding techniques, social organisation, and other aspects of their daily lives has been gained from studies in the field. In those species where individual differences are sufficiently marked to be reliable, photo-identification of individuals within populations is widely used to plot population movements. The need for a more in depth study of whales has never been more pressing. Behaviour, movement statistics, breeding range, food species and population density all need intensive investigation. Effective protection and conservation will only be achieved through a better understanding of these animals. This is especially true of the whales of West Cork.
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