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Sperm whales

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive. Colin Munro Photography

I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” So wrote Owen Chase, First Mate, in his 1821 account of the sinking of the whaling ship the Essex.

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive. Colin Munro Photography

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive.

The whale in question was a cachalot, or sperm whale.  Probably the best known whale; the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (which was actually based on the sinking of the Essex). The sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, is the largest toothed whale, and indeed the largest toothed predator that has ever lived.  Males average 16 metres in length and over 40 tonnes in weight (females are significantly smaller); some may exceed 20 metres and 50 tonnes.  They are the sole extant (living) species in the family Physeteridae, though fossils of several extinct species have been found.  Sperm whales look like no other whale; their massive head and relatively tiny lower jaw coupled with their huge size renders them unmistakable when seen underwater.  However that is not how they are commonly seen.  The best view most of us get of a sperm whale is of them resting almost motionless on the surface, between dives, with only the top of their back and their blowhole visible, followed by the rise of the tail flukes as it descends beneath the surface.

The blow hole and wrinkled skin of a sperm whale resting on the surface. Colin Munro Photography

The blow hole and wrinkled skin of a sperm whale resting on the surface

As sperm whales are air breathing mammals it is tempting to think of them as animals that live at the surface, diving occasionally to hunt.  Not so.  When feeding they will spend 8-10 minutes on the surface breathing, replenishing their oxygen supplies.  In contrast they will spend 35-50 minutes underwater searching for prey.

The low, bushy, forward-directed, blow of a sperm whale is almost unmistakable. Colin Munro Photography

The low, bushy, forward-directed, blow of a sperm whale is almost unmistakable

Studies indicate that sperm whales will spend 70-95% of their time in these foraging cycles so, in terms of where they spend most of their time, these are creatures that inhabit the ocean depths and surface only briefly to breathe.

Unlike most other great whales, the sperm whale does not venture into polar waters to feed, preferring tropical and temperate seas (adult males will venture in to high latitudes).  But even in the tropics it inhabits a cold world.  At a thousand metres depth, well within the normal foraging range of sperm whales, the temperature is only 4-8 degrees centigrade.  It is also a world of almost total darkness.  At 200 metres depth, even in the open ocean the light levels are less than 1/1000th of those at the surface.  At a thousand metres one enters the aphotic zone (the midnight zone) where no sunlight penetrates.  But that does not mean it is a world devoid of light.  It is a world full of bioluminescence. Light produced by chemical reactions within living organisms.  It has been estimated that that 90% of the animals that live below 1000 metres are capable of bioluminecence; glowing, flashing or pulsing green, red, but or white.  This includes many of the prey species of sperm whales. Although they do also consume fish, cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) are by far the greatest portion of their diet.  Famously they predate on giant squid and the even larger colossal squid (which may be longer than a full grown sperm whale and is the largest known invertebrate) but they also consume a wide variety of other cephalopod species.  This includes the wonderfully named vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis is its scientific name, which translates as ‘vampire squid from hell).  Neither a vampire nor a squid it occupies a cephalopod Order all of its own, the Vampyromorphida.

There are a few spots in the oceans renowned for sperm whale sightings.  These are mostly along the edges of underwater canyons and steep drop-offs, where shallow coastal seabeds plunge sharply to hundreds or thousands of metres.  Off the Kaikoura peninsula of New Zealand is possibly the best known area, followed by the Azores islands (where volcanic seamounts rise up from deep water).  The images of mine in this blog were all take off Vesteralen, northern Norway, where a complex of deep canyons direct the seabed offshore from the Lofoten Islands and Vesteralen archipelago. It appears sperm whales hunt along these canyons, thus time spent cruising along the margins of the canyons is often rewarded by sightings of sperm whales as these surface between foraging dives to expel carbon dioxide and replenish their oxygen supplies.




The basking shark

Large basking shark feeding
Large basking shark feeding

Large basking shark feeding

I clearly remember my first in-water encounter with a basking shark.  Quite a few years ago now, I had gone out specifically to try and video a basker underwater.  After a couple of hours we spotted a pair slowly circling a ball of plankton.  I slipped mask, fins and snorkel on and slid in to the water.  Basking sharks can be sometimes be wary and dive when one gets close, but these two seemed quite unconcerned by my presence.  I floated on the edge of the plankton ball and watched them circling.  As one approached out of the gloom I started to swim towards it.  Even through you know it’s quite harmless it is still a strange feeling watching a six metre long shark swimming straight towards you with its mouth wide open.  A mouth I could easily fit inside.  At the last moment the shark would alter course slightly and cruise past me.  The experience was similar to standing too close to the edge of the platform watching a train go past.  Again and again the sharks would circle and cruise past, sweeping by less than a metre from me.  Just me and two large sharks.  It was a mesmerising experience, but I could not help thinking ‘this is so easy!’ Little did I realise at the time quite how lucky my encounter was.  Several years and quite a few attempts would pass before I was able to repeat the experience.

The basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, is the second largest fish in the World. Mature adults commonly reach between six and and seven metres in length, occasionally reaching around nine metres. Despite their massive size basking sharks are quite harmless. They are gentle filter feeders. During summer in the north-east Atlantic they can often be seen swimming close to the surface with their mouths gaping wide. A baskers’ gape can be over a metre top to bottom, so that’s pretty wide. As they swim forwards water is forced in to their mouths, passing across their gills where oxygen is extracted, and out through their large gill slits. This water flow serves a dual purpose. The arches between the gill slits are covered in long stiff bristles called gill rakers. These gill rakers sieve the water flow, retaining planktonic organisms. This is the food of basking sharks. In northern Atlantic waters they feed especially on copepods (planktonic crustaceans) particularly those of the genus Calanus, which occur in enormous numbers in the North Atlantic. Large numbers of such tiny creatures are required to sustain something as large as a basking shark.  Therefore baskers need to filter very large volumes of water.  It has been estimated that around 1.3 million litres of water will pass through the mouth and over the gill rakers of a large basking shark every hour.

Basking shark feeding, showing large gill slits the almost encircle its head

Basking shark feeding, showing large gill slits the almost encircle its head

In the North East Atlantic basking sharks start to appear off the tip of Cornwall (SW England) in early May.  This co-incides with what local fishermen call ‘May-water’, where the coastal seas turn green and turbid due to the seasonal population explosion of plankton.  Throughout the summer months sharks will move northwards through the Irish Sea and around the west coast of Ireland.  In the years immediately following WWII the author Gavin Maxwell ran a basking shark fishery from the island of Soay in the Inner Hebrides, exploiting this northward seasonal migration. The operation was beset with problems and drove him to the edge of bankruptcy.  Basking sharks were hunted by Norwegian and Irish boats also. Due to concern over dwindling numbers, the basking shark received full legal protection in  U.K. waters in 1998.  The last British shark fisherman, a larger than life character called Howard McCrindle, ceased operations a year earlier.  The basking shark is now protected throughout E.U. waters. In 2006 hunting also ended in Norwegian waters.

A basking shark swimming through plankton rich waters off Southwest England

A basking shark swimming through plankton rich waters off Southwest England

Despite their large size, relatively slow movement and surface feeding habits there is much that remains unknown about the life history of basking sharks. Each year the they appear in late spring, then disappear again at the end of September.  Where they go and how they live for the rest of the year has been a mystery, and remains so today, though we are starting to get tantalising clues as to the the answer.  Occasionally, basking sharks would be caught in trawl nets during the winter months.  Some of these were found to have shed their gill rakers, suggesting they were not feeding.  This lead to the theory that they became dormant in winter, hibernating on the seabed.  This theory had a certain plausibility to it.  Basking sharks have enormous oil-filled livers.  The liver can be 25% of the sharks body mass (the low density oil gives the shark buoyancy, allowing it to swim efficiently at the surface; it was also this high quality oil for which they were hunted). It was suggested that this enormous store of liver oil could sustain the shark for months without feeding. Recent research using data logging tags has begun to shed light on shark behaviour during the winter months.  The tags used detach after a predetermined time and float to the surface, where they transmit the data data to satellites. The data at the time of writing indicates that basking sharks are active all year round, but spent much of their time at considerable depth, 200 and 1,000 metres.  It also seems they are highly migratory.  One 5 metre female nicknamed ‘Banba’, was tagged off Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland, in the summer of 2012.  On the 13th December 2012 the tag popped off and was located by satellite – just west of the Cape Verde islands 5000km to the south.  The still sparse, but growing, body of evidence now suggests that – in the North East Atlantic move in to coastal waters from deep water in April or May.  As the water warms and daylight lengthens (and so plankton blooms) there is an erratic movement northwards.  At the end of the summer they return to deeper water, heading west away from the British isles and mail and Europe, and some probably heading south also.  So in reality we should maybe consider the basking shark as a deep water species that happens to congregate in shallow water during the summer months in pursuit of rich feeding.

As a final aside it is often written that basking sharks are toothless filter feeders. Basking sharks are filter feeders utilising gill rakers in a similar fashion to the baleen plates of great whales to trap small planktonic creatures but surprisingly they also teeth.  In fact they have hundreds of tiny, backward-pointing teeth.  What, if any, purpose these teeth serve is not known.  They may be a vestige from a more predatory ancestry; equally there may be more still to learn of the basking sharks feeding habits.

You can see more of my shark images here

The extraordinary life cycle of the lion’s mane jellyfish

Lion's mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, underwater clearly showing tentacles trailing in many directions. Colin Munro Photography

Jellyfish, or sea jellies as they are now often called (clearly they are not fish) are amongst the most ancient of multi-organ animals.  Fossils of jellyfish (or scyphozoans, to give them their scientific name) are found only rarely as they contain no hard structures within their bodies, which are 95% water.  However, under the right conditions fossils of soft bodied creatures will form; current fossil evidence suggests they first evolved at least 500 million years ago.

Lion's mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, underwater clearly showing tentacles trailing in many directions. Colin Munro Photography

The lion’s mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, is the largest known species. The bell of individuals in colder northern waters can reach two metres across.

The lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) common throughout the North Atlantic, epitomises this image of a large, slowly pulsing, gelatinous bell (or medusa) and long trailing tentacles that pack a powerful sting, but this is in fact only one stage of a complex life cycle.  Lion’s mane medusae begin to appear in April or May in the Northern Atlantic, but are quite tiny at that stage.  These jellies are voracious predators and grow rapidly through the summer.  By August the medusae are commonly one third to half a metre across, with trailing tentacles many metres long.  However there is considerable variability;  large specimens have been reported at over two metres across with tentacles up to 37 metres long, though these generally occur within the more northern parts  of their range.  As they grow large in late summer they will often drift, under the influence of wind and tides, in to sheltered bays where they may aggregate in large numbers. This is when sperm is release and egg fertilisation takes place.  In common with most scyphozoans (the taxonomic group to which jellyfish belong) the sexes are separate; lion’s mane jellies are either male or female.  Sperm is released from the mouth of male jellies and drifts in the current, some reaching female jellies, where the eggs are fertilised. Fertilised eggs are stored in the oral tentacles of the female, where thy develop in to tiny planulae larvae. Once fully developed the planulae larvae detach and, after drifting for a short time, settle on the seabed.  Here they metamorphose into a polyp, not dissimilar to tiny sea anemones or coral polyps (both of which are relatives of jellyfish).  These polyps then grow, taking on a layered appearance until they resemble a stack of wavy-edged pancakes.  Each one of these ‘pancake layers’ will then separate from the parent polyp, once again becoming free living and drifting with the currents.  The ‘pancakes’, more properly ephyra larvae, will grow throughout the summer into the giant lion’s mane jellies and the cycle is complete.  With a lifespan on only one year, during which they can grow to be as long (possibly even longer) than blue whale, lion’s mane jellies need to catch and consume considerable amount of prey.  Each trailing tentacle is packed full of vast numbers of stinging cells, known as nematocysts.  When touched these cells fire out a harpoon-like structure which pumps toxins in to the hapless victim (this is what causes the painful sting from jellyfish).  These toxins incapacitate the prey, which is then drawn up towards the mouth of the jellyfish.  A large lion’s mane may have over 1,000 tentacles trailing far behind them.  Many SCUBA divers in Scotland and Scandinavia have experienced the situation where, having completed their dive on a sunken wreck and returned to the buoy line they planned to ascent to the surface, only to look up and see numerous lion’s mane jellies strung out along the line.  As the current sweeps the jellies along so their tentacles catch on the buoy line, leaving the divers with the unpleasant prospect of ascending through thousands of jellyfish tentacles.

A diver warily watches a large lion's mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) drift past. Isle of Arran, West Scotland.

A diver warily watches a large lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) drift past. Isle of Arran, West Scotland.

Not every creature lives in fear of lion’s mane jellies however.  Leatherback turtles, the only species of marine turtle that can tolerate the cold waters these jellies inhabit, consume them with relish, apparently oblivious to the stinging tentacles.  Lion’s mane jellies can make up 80-100% of a leatherback’s diet.  When you consider that a full grown leatherback weighs up to 800kg and may consume up to its own weight in jellyfish daily (bear in mind jellyfish are 95% water) then that equates to pretty large numbers of jellyfish being eaten.

As summer wanes and autumn approaches the lion’s mane jellies begin to die.  This provides a feeding bonanza for many scavengers.  On the surface seabirds will peck away at the gelatinous bell, whilst those that sink are often torn to shreds by shore crabs (Carcinus meanus) and velvet swimming crabs (Necora puber).

Dying lion's mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) that has sunk to the seabed being eaten by a velvet swimming crab (Necora puber).

Dying lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) that has sunk to the seabed being eaten by a velvet swimming crab (Necora puber).

At the other end of the scale these deadly tentacles can provide refuge to some unlikely creatures.  Juvenile whiting (Gadus melangus) have long been known to swim underneath the bell of lion’s mane jellies, apparently unconcerned by the curtain of tentacles they weave between. In fact they have been observed to rush into the mane of tentacles when startled by predators.  A series of fascinating experiments by the Swedish zoologist Erik Dahl in the late 1950s showed that, compared to other fish species, juvenile whiting were able to adapt their movements such that even when surrounded by tentacles they rarely came in to contact with them.  Also, unlike other fish species, when they did brush against them it seemed to cause them little concern. Biopsies of the tissue of whiting where they had contacted tentacles showed that very few if any stinging nematocysts had fired into the fish’s body; this compared to hundreds per square millimetre for other fish species.  We still don’t understand the mechanism behind this protection. So does the lion’s mane get anything in return for the refuge afforded the young whiting?  Well another creature found on lion’s mane jellies is the tiny planktonic amphipod (a type of crustacean) Hyperia galba. Hyperia is, for the jellies, a rather irritating ectoparasite. It lives on the outside of the jellies’ bell, nibbling away at it.  Now whiting don’t appear to like the taste of lion’s mane jellies, instead they are rather partial to planktonic crustaceans; in particular (you’ve guessed this already) Hyperia galba.   It is these elegant little symbiotic collaborations that make nature so beautiful.

These, and many more of my images, can be found at

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