Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Lonely Whale

Science News Article |

It isn't often that a news story catches my attention like this one did. Mind you, with the gerbils powering my net connection being a tad on the slow side these days, it isn't often that I get to download the news either. Still, this story about a single whale that's been cruising the Pacific for the past twelve years singing a song unlike any other really got me. The details are rather sketchy. Apparently using the sonar readings available through the US submarine fleet, scientists have been classifying whales and their migration patterns in the Pacific. This one whale has a voice unlike any other and also doesn't share the usual migration routes.

The implications of the story are fairly staggering when you stop to think about it. The Pacific is a rather vast area and there are obviously things there that we humans are as yet unaware of. It's quite possible that there are whales in the Pacific that we are not aware of, but then there is the statement that this is one whale rather than a group of them. The first thing that occurred to me on reading the article was the thought of how excrutiatingly lonely that creature must be. To wander an area the size of the Pacific alone is unimaginable to me. But perhaps this sort of whale is a solitary creature. Orangutans are primates, like gorillas, chimps and humans, all of whom live in groups. Orangutans, however, are solitary and do not live in groups. They simply get together at breeding times, and after that the female is raising her offspring without any input from another orangutan.

Humans live in groups. The extended family seems to be almost extinct in many parts of the world, most notably in Europe and North America, but in Egypt it is alive and well. Sometimes an extended family is supportive and other times it is stifling. Much depends on the particular family or particular family members, but the association with an extended family in this part of the world was initially one of the big draws of Egypt. I grew up in North America and had almost no family other than one aunt on my father's side. My mother's family was all in the UK and we didn't travel there much to know them well. I've seen more of them since moving to Egypt than I ever did growing up. Something about the Egyptian sunshine and the English rain.....

The predilection for living in each other's pockets that is found in Egypt has caused all sorts of problems for urban planners. They've built satellite cities around Cairo to relieve the pressure on the capital city, but people don't want to be that far from their parents and old neighbourhoods. Getting Egyptians to move is amazingly impossible. As a college student in North America, I moved so many times that when I decided to add them all up as a grad student, I was astounded at the number of addresses I'd had over the years. That would not be the case here at all. Most young people live with their parents until they marry and then they don't move more than maybe once. Someone applying for a job in North America wouldn't think twice about applying for one in another city or state or province, but in Egypt to find someone willing to move from Alexandria to Cairo or vice versa is almost unheard of. Egyptians are definitely in the extreme of crowd-loving people.

I was talking to a friend the other day and laughing about someone asking me if it was hard living alone. First, when you have ten dogs, you are not living alone no matter how you figure it. A pack of dogs is a complex society and I'm constantly dealing with arguments, disputes and discussions among them. Then my friend pointed out that although I live alone with a gang of dogs, no one could say that I'm not social. I have neighbours dropping by all the time if I'm home and otherwise I'm usually off to see a friend. Then there are the visitors. Since I moved here in February, I've had ten long-term (over a week and usually more like three) houseguests and probably another four short term. Not bad for ten months in a shoebox inhabited by a lone woman and a bunch of canines.

Another story about the whale in the New Scientist quotes researchers as saying that the lonely whale probably isn't a new species. It's voice is at a higher frequency, a much higher frequency, than other whales of what they believe is its species. Maybe this is just a sort of Tiny Tim whale, for those of you old enough to remember the falsetto-voiced singer. And if it's like Tiny Tim, well, that could be reason enough to be alone.

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