All Cetaceans Great and Small

All Cetaceans Great and Small

‘The skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body.’

Herman Melville; Moby-Dick (1851)

The Western Cape has long been one of the finest sites worldwide for the observation of cetaceans. Before you scratch your head and turn to Google, let us elucidate: cetaceans are an infraorder of aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises. Probably the most remarkable fact about cetaceans – one we have referenced before – is the fact that as a group they followed the opposite path of the standard evolutionary pattern. We all (apart from a few blinkered individuals) know that life originated in the oceans and slowly – very slowly – evolved, with many species of animal, bird and insect taking on terrestrial forms, including the cetaceans. But for reasons that remain unclear, they decided to return to the waters about 49 million years ago.

In terms of evolutionary history this is relatively recent, in fact the continents would have looked recognisable to us today, with Africa and the Americas separated by an already substantial Atlantic Ocean. Australia was sneaking away from Antarctica, and although Europe was still pretty much a jigsaw of land masses, the first mammals had appeared – the oldest known fossils of modern mammal orders are dated to this time. However, after the era of the lost and lamented gigantic dinosaurs, these creature were abundantly dwarf forms. Speculation is that the ambient temperature of the Eocene (from the Greek ‘dawn’) was high due to greenhouse gas – we are not the first earthly inhabitants to suffer from this problem – and most species remained small in order to feed easier and survive the conditions.

The ungulates were the major winners of the evolutionary race, and we see the first iterations of horses, bats, rodents, marsupials and the unwieldly named proboscidians – we call them elephants. Included in the list was a cute little character called Paketicus: it lived in what is now Pakistan (but you guessed that) and was a wolf-like creature somewhere between one and two metres long that lived on the waters edge where it ate fish and other small sea creatures. Looking at a fossil skeleton it resembles a cross between a large dog and a crocodile, with the head region being the crocodilian part. What a watch dog Paketicus would have made in this day and age, but it had other plans. Like its closest modern day relative, the hippopotamus, Paketicus took back to the water, all the better to catch fish it appears.

It may have been the first, but it wasn’t alone. The Indohyus, a cute little chevrotain-like animal also dived in, and possibly other even-toed ungulates, but fossil records are incomplete. What followed was 15 million years of adaptation as these brave creature spent more and more time in the water. Looking at modern day artistic representations of the fossils of the series of creatures that evolved makes for a fascinating experience: the small, possibly furry, creatures slowly adapted to permanent marine life and seemingly unevolved. Apart from their superior intelligence, that is. The two modern cetacean orders, the baleen Mysticeti and toothed Odontoceti, split apart about 30 million years ago, and from these suborders came the other cetaceans we know and love. The toothed variety accounts for the dolphins, porpoises and narwhales (amongst others), while the magnificent Blue Whales and our beloved Southern Right whales stem from the baleen grouping.

Talking about Southern Right whales … at Waterfront Charters one of our primary focal areas is -and always will be – the preservation and protection of all the amazing creatures that occupy not only our waters, but all the oceans worldwide. And not only the cetaceans (although we do have a soft spot for these beautiful, playful and highly intelligent species) but all the marine life that thrives beneath the surface of the sea. The 8th June is World Ocean Day, and their target of ‘30×30’ – the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans, lands and waters by 2030 – is supported by all properly evolved world leaders. To quote the event planning committee ‘With your help, and the efforts of thousands of other organizations worldwide, we will help grow the global movement by spreading awareness and gathering public support.’

It’s still a couple on months away, but saving the planet should not be limited to just one day a year. Looking again at our cetacean friends, the threats to their survival all come from humans: pollution and illegal hunting and fishing. Descriptions of the trapping and murdering of pods of dolphins make for sickening reading; whale hunting in the name of ‘research’ continues unabated. As the 30×30 movement says, we need to spread awareness and gain support to eradicate these primeval (with the accent on ‘evil’) practices.

Join us! Take an eye-opening Ocean Safari on our RIBs; take a sail across Table Bay on our schooner. A Sunset Cruise; a Clifton party. On any of our scheduled and chartered cruises you are sure to encounter some of the wildlife that abounds beneath our keels, and we are always thrilled to facilitate the event. With luck you’ll get sightings of the cetacean representatives that grace our ocean: it’s always a great thrill for us as well as our starry-eyed guests.