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.


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 and hunted them heavily when blue and fin whales became scarce, 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 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.”


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, is a concern for baleen whales. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are filtered out and 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, opening Friday, May 6. 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.

A Whale of a Tale

ewf_7044_noorwegen 2007
Creative Commons License photo credit: Erwin Winkelman

HMNS was honored last week when Minerals Management Service  (MMS) chose our Wiess Energy Hall for an announcement about their six-year, $9.3 million study of endangered sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the mission of MMS is to promote responsible use of energy and mineral resources on federal land and the Outer Continental Shelf. Their results indicate that the whales are only minimally affected by oil and gas exploration. You can read all the news articles written about this event by clicking here. 

The MMS partnered with several universities and scientists such as Doug Biggs,  a Texas A&M oceanographer who led the research.

Humpback Whale Breaching by Official Photographer (NOAA)
Creative Commons License photo credit:

As is often the case with science, we now have even more questions about sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico than we started with. In fact, most of us never even knew there were any kind of whales in the Gulf, probably because they live far from shore and spend their time diving as deep as 7,000 feet for squid and fish.

Because whales use echolocation, in the form of clicking and buzzing sounds, to find their prey, there was a concern that the loud seismic air guns used for oil and gas exploration would disorient them. However, the study showed that the noise had little affect. The study also gave us more information about the breeding and feeding patterns of the whales that can be used for future studies. The recent surge in interest in offshore drilling makes this Sperm Whale Seismic Study in the Gulf of Mexico even more important.

I love hearing that sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are unharmed by seismic surveys, but another treat for me was the people who came to Houston from MMS for the press conference (held in the Wiess Energy Hall Explorations Theater). Caryl Fagot, and Eileen Angelico are as fun to work with as it must be playing with the whales in the Gulf! They are in the Public Affairs office in the MMS Gulf of Mexico Region Office in New Orleans. Carol Roden and Ann Jochens are research scientists on the team. I love seeing women scientists in action to prove to non-believers that YES women can be scientists.

Randall Luthi, Director, Minerals Management Service in Washington DC has a sense of humor that could even entertain a whale. He is from Wyoming and pointed out that he therefore has first-hand knowledge of whales, even though they have a different species than in the Gulf. (I hope this causes those of you who are not grinning to search a U.S. map for the humor involved.) I admire the dedication of Doug, Caryl, Eileen, Carol, Ann, Randall and all of the others in attendance, to keeping our wildlife safe from human harm.

Animal-eye view: Q&A with Crittercam inventor Greg Marshall

Greg Marshall

Greg Marshall, with the latest
incarnation of CritterCam.

Crittercam, a new exhibit at The Woodlands Xploration Station, takes visitors underwater with whales, across the Serengeti with lions and over the Antarctic glacier with penguins. Its unique animal-eye view gives us an unprecedented look into animal behavior – and the world they live in.

Greg Marshall is a scientist, inventor and filmmaker who has dedicated the last 20 years to studying, exploring and documenting life in the oceans. Funded by the National Geographic Society, philanthropic foundations and U.S. federal grants, Marshall created CritterCam not only as a scientific tool, but also a major collaborative research program engaging scientists worldwide. Over the last 15 years Marshall’s Remote Imaging Program has collaborated with over 30 scientific groups on over 50 different species.

Here, Greg answers a few of our questions about this amazing technology.

1. What inspired you to create Crittercam? Has it lived up to your expectations – or perhaps gone in a different direction from what you originally expected?

In 1986 I was diving off the coast of Belize for my graduate work when I encountered a shark.  The shark sidled up and casually swept around me before disappearing back into the mist, but in that brief encounter I noticed a remora suckled to its belly. 

In that moment it occurred to me how extraordinary it would be to be that remora and ride along with the shark.  I imagined that a small camera in a streamlined housing could mimic the remora and allow me to vicariously observe the sharks behavior and ecology over time and through that alien space without the disturbing presence of a human observer. 

I had just built an underwater housing for a small camcorder and proceeded to reconfigure it into the closest thing to an electronic remora I could devise.  The resulting package looks like a monstrosity today, but when I strapped it to a captive turtle in a tank, the turtle simply ignored its backpack and behaved normally.  This was the important test that showed me the concept had merit.

Creative Commons License photo credit: modean987

I wrote a concept paper of the different components my electronic remora should have and over the years, continuously strived to make the package smaller, lighter and more powerful.  Now, more than twenty years later, my electronic remora has shrunk to about the size of a flashlight.  It can withstand pressures of 1,000 meters, is controlled by a sophisticated onboard microprocessor and is capable of recording a suite of environmental and geospatial data.  Collaborating with experts around the world, my team and I have deployed Crittercams on over 50 marine species.  So, it has lived up to my expectations in many ways.

In other ways, it has surpassed them.  I conceived of Crittercam as a scientific tool, a way of studying animal behavior in places people access.  What I didn’t expect was the tremendous attraction the resulting images hold for people.  Every time we deploy, Crittercam brings home the animal’s point-of-view… a perspective that allows people to connect with the animal and its struggles to survive.  It’s this empathic experience that I didn’t necessarily expect when I invented Crittercam and that we have been able to share through many National Geographic films – and the Crittercam exhibit.

Crittercam Penguin

A penguin shows off his Crittercam.

2. What was the biggest challenge you faced in developing Crittercam? Are there particular animals that take to wearing the cameras better than others? What animals presented the biggest challenges?

Initially, the biggest challenge was to convince anybody that the concept had merit.  I had the initial inspiration in 1986 and at the time video cameras were relatively huge.  Whenever I would talk about the idea, people would look at me like I was nuts.

Wild animals don’t seem to react to the systems…I think they are simply too busy dealing with much more significant things that impact their lives, like finding food, avoiding predators or engaging in mating activity.  But some species are easier to work with than others.  Sharks and whales, for example, never leave the water and therefore the challenge lies in finding them, approaching them and encountering them long enough to attach a Crittercam.  Seals, turtles and penguins make it somewhat easier since they return to land to raise their young, so we can wait for them to come to us.

The hardest animals we have deployed Crittercam on are leopard seals.  These are large, predatory seals that live in the Antarctic pack ice.  They are solitary and widely spaced, so they are hard to find, hard to approach, hard to sedate and just plain hard to work with.  It took us six months to conduct one deployment.  But despite the challenge, leopard seals also embody the reason we do this work:  their world is melting, yet we do not know the simplest things about them. 

We are changing this planet, we need to understand the impact our behavior has on the creatures we share this planet with so we can protect their future – and our own.

3. What contributions has Crittercam technology made to our understanding of animal behavior? What is the most surprising thing you have discovered through the use of this technology?

Collaborating with scientists around the world, we have deployed Crittercams on whales, sharks, sea turtles, seals, penguins, sirenians and fish.  We’ve also now evolved the concept from sea to land and have worked with lions, tigers and bears. 

Crittercam Lion

A leash with a lens: Crittercam on a female lion.

What the system captures during deployment on wild, free-ranging animals is data from the animal’s point of view, insights into their fundamental behavior and ecology.  This data helps us to understand how the animals function in their environment.  We publish in peer-reviewed journals, and our papers are read by like-minded scientists who can use these published results to help impact management decisions.

In an ongoing research collaboration with NOAA we discovered the endangered Hawaiian monk seals‘ critical foraging habitat.  Not only did we capture animal-borne imaging data that fundamentally changed our understanding of the animal and what it needs to survive, but as a by-product of the research we produced the PBS Special “Hawaiian Monk Seals:  Surviving Paradise”, raising awareness about an endangered species few people even know exist.  In collaboration with SCRIPPS, we deployed Crittercams on emperor penguins and experienced – for the first time ever – how they hunt and feed under the ice.  We told that story in “Emperors of the Ice”, another PBS Special, and used some of these same images in the Oscar winning feature film “March of the Penguins.”  These and our other films are geared for a lay audience but carry a strong conservation message. 

Our ultimate objective is to inspire people to care… because that is, after all, the only way we’ll ever do the hard work of conversation. 

4. How does the technology continue to develop, and what kind of testing is involved? Are there any animals that could not wear Crittercam? How did you make sure that the cameras are safe for animals to wear?

As technology progresses so does Crittercam.  I have a dedicated team at National Geographic and we are constantly working to make the systems smaller, more robust and more powerful.  The smaller the package, the smaller the species we can work with.  The more data we can record, the more we learn about the animals. 

Before we ever deploy systems on animals, we need to test them.  As a matter of principle, we thoroughly test each system comprehensively on the bench before deploying on an animal.  My lab at National Geographic has a pressure chamber, so we can ensure the system integrity down to 3000 meters.  After the systems pass the bench and lab tests, we can start deployments on animals in controlled settings.  One of my favorite test subjects is my six-year old son, Connor.  He is a young, active mammal and loves to put new Crittercams through their paces.  You can check him out on the National Geographic Kids site under “Connorcam.” 

When I deployed that first Crittercam prototype on a turtle, I had no idea whether it would be safe for the animal or not.  I didn’t know what her reaction would be and was prepared to remove the system immediately if she seemed disturbed.  But she didn’t seem to react at all.  With every new species we work with, we have to make this same assessment. 

The good news is that I’ve been developing animal-borne imaging for over 20 years now.  There were many things I didn’t know when I started out and that I had to learn by just doing and either failing or succeeding.  Over the years, my team and I have built on those experiences and today’s systems and deployment methods are based on principles we proved along the way.


Coming soon to Crittercam: bugs-eye view.
Creative Commons License photo credit: HVargas

At the moment, some species are still too small to carry Crittercam.  I’d love to deploy on smaller penguins, but to accomplish that we’ll have to shrink the system more.  People also keep asking about insect cams.  Same story there – it’ll just take time, but it will happen and it will be an amazing perspective. 

5. What do you hope people will discover at the Crittercam exhibit?

I hope people will discover and be as excited as I am about this new perspective on the world.  We are more and more isolated from the wild and the fact that we share this planet with many other living things.  Crittercam provides a connection to other creatures, a way of seeing the world from an animal’s point of view.  I hope people who visit the exhibit will learn something about animals and the challenges they face, but first and foremost I hope they’ll discover in themselves an empathy with these animals as they swim with sharks, dive with whales and stalk with lions.  And I hope this experience can help spark an inspiration to care and conserve these animals and the habitats they depend on and call home.

Greg Marshall is a two-time Emmy Award winner for cinematography and sound, for the National Geographic Specials “Great White Sharks” (1995) and “Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid” (1999). He has created, produced or executive produced more than 70 natural-history-themed conservation films. See the results of his groundbreaking research in Crittercam, now on display at The Woodlands Xploration Station.