Beached Galveston Whale Raises Concerns and Curiosities

Back in December, a 44-foot sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore and died on the Galveston coastline near the Terramar subdivision. It was sighted by a passerby who spied it rolling in the waves, its spout the only clear sign that it was alive. A crowd gathered, including a local dolphin rescue group and machinery crews who brought out a front-end loader.

Not much could be done for the whale, unfortunately, since its size prevented advocacy groups and interested citizens from helping it back into the ocean. A frightened whale, rolling in the waves, poses a serious threat of crushing those who wish to help it. Onlookers had no choice but to watch and hope for the best.

sei whale

Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

When the whale stopped spouting, a sign it was no longer breathing, crews dragged it ashore so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, could be performed and its species could be identified. After the seven-hour procedure to determine its cause of death, results were inconclusive and remained murky for several weeks. A number of combined factors could have contributed to its becoming stranded. The whale was dragged on shore by front-end loaders and buried in a deep trench near the water table, common practice for any beached cetacean.

“Typically when dolphins are beached, we take them to an off-site location and bury them. This whale was 60,000 pounds, so we buried it at the site where it washed up,” said Mary Beth Bassett, Public Relations Coordinator for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

whaling

Woodcut of Dutch whalers in the 1800s.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the sei whale as an endangered species, with less than 12,000 individuals estimated to live in today’s oceans. Commercial whalers targeted the species when blue and fin whales became scarce and hunted them heavily, driving their numbers dangerously low. While advocacy groups continue to work to restore the population, the sei whale, and ocean-going whales in general, remain difficult to track and understand, and so must be protected through international whaling laws.

Because whales use echolocation to navigate, sonar from commercial ships might confuse whales, driving them into dangerous situations that lead to beachings, explained Tina Petway, Houston Museum of Natural Science Associate Curator of Malacology. This could have played a factor in the death of this whale, which was also probably ill and its navigational faculties already impaired.

fin whale

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

“Whales frequently have parasites that get in the inner ear and cause them to have echolocation problems and lose their balance easily,” Petway said. “They can be led off their paths easily when their echolocation doesn’t seem to work.”

Petway theorized that some of these ocean-going whales unused to inshore areas can become “lost” between sandbars. When led astray, they might pass a sandbar and believe they are heading back out to sea when in fact, they are in a trough between sandbars. By this time, they are trapped and the inshore current continues to push them further onto the beach.

Brydes whale

Bryce’s whale, (Balaenoptera brydei) with three distinctive ridges on its head.

“But something was wrong before it got stranded,” Petway said.

The sei whale belongs to a family of fin whales characterized by a small, backward-curving dorsal fin far down their backs. Only four whales have this specific characteristic, the blue whale, the fin whale (its name no surprise), the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-des) whale, and the sei whale. The Bryde’s and the sei are difficult to distinguish from one another. They are almost identical in size and shape, but the Bryde’s has three ridges on the top of its head running from its blowhole to its snout, while the sei whale has only one.

“Almost all species of whales can be found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Petway said. “We have pods of killer whales (orcas) in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t travel. They are resident pods.”

Baleen

Fin whales all use baleen to catch and filter krill out of large gulps of seawater. They swim through large schools of krill, or copopods, with their mouths open, and push the water through the baleen (which has the appearance of broom bristles hanging from the top of the mouth) with their tongues. Like dust, the baleen catches the krill, which the whale then swallows.

plastic ocean

The growing amount of bits of plastic in the ocean, now so far broken down some of it is microscopic, affects how baleen whales feed. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are swallowed with all the rest. Scientists are unsure how this affects whales since they are difficult to study, but it can’t be good. You can help these whales when you observe World Oceans Day June 8 this year by making a pledge to reduce your plastic use and begin recycling. Spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Plastic in the oceans is a serious world emergency. Whales like the sei and other fin whales, which are already endangered, need no more problems threatening their numbers, and plastic affects the entire food chain, including we humans, who also depend on the oceans as a source of food.

You can size yourself up to a complete whale skeleton in HMNS’s newest exhibit, Cabinet of Curiosities. Personnel are currently restoring the skeleton, which has been in storage for a number of years, and will hang it from the ceiling as part of this hands-on history of wonder.

Not the second-largest port for nothin’: Join us for the Summer Energy Teacher Workshop

When most people think of a port city, they think of beaches and a lot of waterfront property. They think of palm trees and salty sea breezes. But not all port cities are on the coast. In the United States, there are numerous inland ports (ports on fresh waterways) such as those in Milwaukee and Chicago.

But when you think of ports, Houston is not one that readily comes to mind (especially to non-natives or out-of-towners). Given that we are the second-largest port in the United States, this seems a bit odd.

photo courtesy wikimedia

Houston had an odd way of coming to be. Before Texas won its independence from Mexico, there was no city of Houston. After independence, the Allen brothers, a couple of real-estate dealers from New York, convinced the new president of Texas, Sam Houston, to have the government buy the land that would become Houston and establish the seat of government there.

In the early days of the Republic, the streets of the city were dominated by a tents. Slowly, buildings went up. And after a few years, a port was established on the bayou to run trade to and from Galveston. For a while there was an overnight passenger steamboat from Galveston to Houston. In 1900, the big storm came to Galveston and destroyed a large number of the businesses and buildings on the island, and Houston promoted the idea of an inland port that would be protected from hurricanes.

The Houston Ship Channel was dug and opened in September of 1914. Since then the Channel has grown to be one of the largest ports in the United States. Now Houston ranks second in the United States for total tonnage (weight/mass of cargo) and first in international waterborne tonnage. As you can imagine, the port adds a lot to the city’s economy. In fact it brings about $200 million into the state each year.

As the energy capital of the world, a lot of crude oil, natural gas, and coal move through the Port of Houston. Several refineries are located on the waterfront, including the largest in the US, the ExxonMobil refinery. As in the energy industry, the majority of the maritime workforce will reach retirement age soon.

Join us for our week-long Summer Energy Teacher Workshop, where we will be going to energy destinations like the Port of Houston and learning about what kinds of opportunites exist in the energy industry.

Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal

In Texas! The Exhibition you can view hundreds of objects, each with fascinating back stories. Some of these amazing artifacts belonged to well known national heroes and some to local heroes.

As I stroll through the exhibit’s Civil War section, I’m often drawn to one small and shiny object named the Davis Guards medal. I’m a history nerd, but until recently I wasn’t familiar with Davis Guards metals.

Engraved on the metal are the words: Jack White| Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. A document in the case above the metal has the signature of a 1st Lieutenant by the name of R W Dowling.

Together, these objects reveal an interesting story.

It’s a story this history “connoisseur” still might have overlooked if something in the text panel had not caught my eye. According to the panel, the Davis Guards medal on display is one of three held in private hands, and it is one of only seven that are known to still be in existence.

However, being rare does not always translate to being fascinating. As I was preparing to begin my research for our upcoming Discovering the Civil War exhibition, I noticed something interesting.

On a rough draft of objects we hope to have on display is yet ANOTHER shiny disk with the words: Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. I was intrigued. If only three of these are in the hands of private collectors and HMNS may have the honor of displaying a second Davis Guard medal, this piece is more fascinating.

But who was R W Dowling? What was his connection to the Davis Guards medal? What happened at the Battle of Sabine Pass? And most importantly, why is this medal significant? Since the discovery of the second medal to be displayed I have been obsessively researching to find more about these topics.

The Davis Guards Medal
The Davis Medal
See more photos from the Texas exhibit on Flickr.

Richard William “Dick” Dowling was born in 1838 in an area called Tuam (pronounced choo-um), which is located in Ireland.

He and his family left Ireland at the start of the potato famine in 1845 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While living in Louisiana, Dowling’s parents and four of his siblings died of yellow fever in 1853. After the loss of his parents, he and a few siblings moved across the Louisiana border to Texas.

Dowling settled in Houston where he met, fell in love with, and married Elizabeth Odlum. With the support of Elizabeth’s family, Dowling was able to start and maintain several successful saloon businesses and became a founding member of the Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (which later became the Houston Fire Department), and even owned one of the first oil and gas companies in Texas. His saloons were outfitted with gas lighting as a result of this investment. Richard Dowling was indeed a prominent local businessman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, like many men during this time, Dick Dowling went off to war.

He joined a group of other Irish immigrants. His group would help the Confederate army remove the Union blockade during the Battle of Galveston. During that battle, the USS Westfield sank off the coast (HMNS will display some objects from the USS Westfield in the Discovering the Civil War exhibition). Dowling and his group were in charge of guarding the coast of Texas until they were given a new assignment, the Sabine Pass.

Dowling was placed in charge of a group of 47 men of the Davis Guards, which was named after the current Confederate States of America’s president. Under his uncompromising leadership, he drilled his men until they could properly shoot up to 2,000 yards, which was the length to clear the Sabine Pass.

What Dowling and his men did on September 8, 1863 would go down in history as one of the greatest military upsets on American soil.

The 47 men of the Davis Guard were faced with 5,000 enemy soldiers. Instead of drawing back, according to his official report, Dowling and his men used a motto that once brought heartache to Texas.

They shouted “Victory or Death” as they aggressively attacked the Union forces.

After 45 minutes, the Union soldiers retreated and the battle was over. The Davis Guards hadn’t lost a single man. They captured 350 prisoners, and 50 Union soldiers lay dead that day in a solid victory for the CSA. The Union forces would never again threaten Texas in a major confrontation until the Battle of Palmito Ranch (also a CSA victory), which was fought over a month after the Civil War had ended. The victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was one of the reasons that Texas was the only southern state to never be successfully occupied during the Civil War.

President Jefferson Davis was so pleased with the underdog victory that he asked the Confederate Congress to approve the commission of medals for the Davis Guard.

The medal is thought to be the only one commissioned by the Confederate Congress. Each Guards member would receive a silver round medal attached to a green ribbon (in honor of their Irish background) that was engraved with Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863 on one side, and on the other D.G. with either a Maltese cross or the CSA flag below the initials. Naturally, being an honorary member of the Davis Guards, President Davis was also given a medal along with every Davis Guards member.

The Confederate flag was the shortest reigning flag in Texas’ history, and even though the “war of northern aggression” would bring this chapter in our history to a close, it provided us with local Texas heroes.

In Texas! The Exhibition there are amazing artifacts from Texas’ proud past. Don’t miss the chance to see a rare part of history that is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

And don’t forget to join us in October for our new special exhibition Discovering the Civil War!

Second Saturday – Celebrating Texas Pioneers

Celebrating Texas Pioneers is the theme for Novembers Second Saturday event at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land.

Downtown we are exhibiting Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Islandwhich explores the history of Galveston Island acting as a port of entry for immigrants to America.  At our Second Saturday event in Sugar Land, you can investigate what life was like for the immigrants who left everything behind to become Texans. Participate in crafts that are appropriate for this era like creating your own family tree, and learning how to weave and quilt.  Also make memory trunks by deciding what would your pack if you had to immigrate and could only pack a single bag.  There will also be story time, and the opportunity to learn the origin of Fredericksburg’s famous Easter Fires!

This event is November 13, 2010 from 10 am to 2 pm at HMNS – Sugar Land.  Free with museum admission.