Eavesdropping on whales

by Daniel Casillan

September 24, 2012

I grew up with the ocean in my life. Being from Southern California, it was only natural to become a diver and body surfer. I have been lucky to swim with coastal dolphins in California, and even dive with humpback whales when I lived in the Cook Islands. These experiences changed me as a person, and I pursued learning about them in college.

I joined Greenpeace and started to support the “Save the Whales” campaign. Since then, I have been part of the great projects in marine conservation.

So this time when I got called to become a diver on the Esperanza tour in Korea, it was like a dream come true.

We did a four-day survey to observe whales and other cetaceans in South Korea, and to show that there are better ways to study them rather than killing them. We went about doing a search pattern in the seas around Ulsan to find and observe any whales or dolphins. This meant our two whale scientist and crew onboard would be out looking for these marine mammals from sun up to sun down.

It got very hot in the bright sun and even rainy at times but our hard work paid off. We spotted a large pod of common dolphins. It just happened that we had two inflatables out on the water testing some of the underwater microphone and some other gear as well. We calmly waited for the pod of about 300 dolphins to swim past us with the microphone in the water recording their echolocation.

Echolocation is a series of clicks and whistles whales and dolphins make to communicate with each other, and is a way to ‘see’ the area around them, very similar to a sonar. After the pod swam past us we followed safely behind them, then went ahead of the pod to get another recording as well as get video and photo documentation for later studies on size, amount, health, and how many babies were with the pod. We did this several times and after a while they got comfortable having us around and would even come and swim near the inflatables. Next we tried to get a head of the pod so that I could get in the water and try to get them on film in their natural environment.

Having driven ahead of the pod, I was able to get in with out scaring any of them. Once I slipped into the water I could hear them ‘talk’ to each other and even feel the echolocation bounce off me.

On another day, there was not much marine life to see but we did see the many many different fishing gear and buoys floating along. In a five-minute period I saw at least 125 different buoys that were connected to fishing traps and 10 fishing boats.

We also saw a lot of large jelly fish which can be a sign of the lack of biodiversity in an area so other a species (jelly fish) could come in and take over the area. This has been witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico particularly in and around the area of the Mississippi delta.

On the day we had to drop off some people in port, we saw two more pods of common dolphins. And right after having lunch, one scientist told me she saw a minke whale. Sure enough a minute later I saw the minke myself. Within a five-minute period the minke whale was seen about 6 times. We did not have a chance or time to launch the inflatable to get a closer look at this minke whale because it dove down to the deep, after just a brief moment for us to see.

When South Korea told the International Whaling Commission in July that they plan to do “scientific whaling” this definitely was not a good sign for marine biodiversity. Just like we are opposing Norwegian, Japanese and Icelandic hunts, any South-Korean whaling will be vehemently opposed by Greenpeace.

Protesting in Seoul

Just after 11am near the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, policemen ran up from the outside the US embassy after being summoned by an undercover police officer. Within seconds, we were encircled by twenty five policemen, some in plain clothes, trying to take down the inflatable whale that we have put in front of the Korea’s government complex.

Not knowing what was going to happen, we calmly continued. Four Greenpeace activists held up two banners, one said “South Korean government, don’t kill whales anymore”.

The police stomped and smashed the whale balloon, trying to deflate it. A few other policemen tried to take away the banners. But we held strong with our peaceful action, to give voice to whales.

This is very symbolic of what is happening out in the ocean. Whales suffer from an alarmingly high rate of bycatch, and on top of that large number of whales are being killed illegaly due to the governments lack of willingness to implement its own law to ban whaling..But, instead of adressing these problems, the Korean Government is considering to embark on a whaling program on the endangered Minke stock! Clearly its time for the government to get its priorities right and start acknowledging that whales are a critical part of the ocean environment’s health.

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