High definition, deep water

Had enough of the coke-and-mentos display? Time for a more mellow viral video fix, perhaps. This week's New York Times offers some soothing underwater footage of humpback whales. The accompaying story promises even better visuals soon, thanks to the advent of hi-def.

The story follows marine biologist Jason Sturgis' quest for better resolution of his research subject, and makes much of the utility of high-definition video:

"Jason's images might well serve whale research in the manner that Carl Sagan's eloquence made physics and astronomy meaningful to a lay audience," said Dan R. Salden, founder of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, a nonprofit group in Maui.

The theory is better cameras make it easier to record whale activities without getting so close and disrupting the very behavior researchers are trying to study. While this is probably quite the case -- at the very least it should make the notoriously frustrating task of photo-identification much easier to carry out -- my hyperbole detector is beeping wildly.

The main challenge facing any behavioural biologist hoping to understand whales is the fact that we're primarily creatures of light while most whales live in a world of dominated by sound. Watching whales is useful as far as it goes, but until we have a better grasp of how whales assemble models their environment using acoustic data, we're just guessing.

As a recent paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology (Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales, Volume 75 Page 814) demonstrates, we're still a long way from figuring how some species use their sonar. The most specific conclusion to come from that research is it "supports the hypothesis that regular clicks function as a long-range biosonar."

So by all means, bring on the hi-def whale movies. Who doesn't like whale movies? Just remember that the challenge of getting inside a whale's head will require much more sophisticated technology. I think it safe to say that, when it comes to cetacean behavior, we're nowhere near unravelling the mysteries.


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the challenge of getting inside a whale's head will require much more sophisticated technology
Well of course, you'll need a mind-melding Vulcan for that :-)

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