What a week for whale news!
On the positive side, there are reports of record sightings of rare right whales off the Rhode Island coast. It's a great opportunity for New England whale aficionados, even if it doesn't reflect a sudden surge in the population. (Current estimates: There are only 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.)
There's also news about orcas. Genetic research concludes that there at least three distinct orca species, though they may appear identical to our eyes. Their feeding preferences differ, too. One species favors Antarctic seals, another fish.
The existence of distinct species could mean that different populations face greater threats to their survival. Orcas are not now protected under the Endangered Species Act. That could change, based on the status of the newly identified species.
Whale poop is in the news, too. Australian scientists believe iron-rich whale droppings act as a fertilizer, sparking plankton blooms that help sequester carbon in the Southern Ocean. No details yet on how significant a contribution this might make to global greenhouse gas reduction.
As we learn more about these remarkable, intelligent animals, we're still debating whether it's OK to hunt them for food.
The International Whaling Commission is considering a compromise plan that would end the global ban on commercial whaling adopted in 1986.
Perhaps Andrew Revkin, the Dot Earth blogger for the New York Times, has a solution: Rename the IWC as the International WHALE Commission to reflect our current relationship with the world's cetaceans.
Photos courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (top); and Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation