GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers

Did You Know...

The following is a series of articles posted weekly (or at least, a mild attempt is made to post weekly) under the subject title of "Did You Know..." to the GASP list which are not only intended for fun, but also to inform those who want to know about different topics of interest (such as marinelife, boat design, etc.) associated with sea kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico and area.

  1. Big Case of Bad Breath In Humpbacks
  2. Bottlenose Dolphins Are The Most Common Dolphin In The Gulf of Mexico
  3. In 1941, Only 14 to 16 Whooping Cranes Existed
  4. Helium Balloons and Marine Life Can Be a Deadly Combination

Did You Know...

that humback whales have been spotted off the coast of Florida and that some humpbacks breed in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months? See:

Whales On The Net
Humpback Whales - Office of Protected Resources

And that one way the humpback is identified/located is because of a really bad case of bad breath. Or so it was thought until this scientist decided to take a closer look... or uhm, smell... (article by Dr. Tom Ford follows).

I was particularly interested in the following because, while on a recent whale watching tour, one of the members of the Whale Watch Team from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was on board our vessel to explain habits and environments with regards to whales and mentioned the case of the humpback's bad breath which could be detected before the whale was spotted ...


Reprinted with permission

From: Whalenet

Copyright 1994
Date: 24-AUG-1994 20:54 Expires: 30-SEP-2022 10:29
Subject: Bad Breath

In 1985 I began to wonder about the lousy breath in some humpback whales. At that time the off-hand official explanation was that the stench arose from food bits rotting in the baleen. That was very unlikely because the esophagus is isolated from the trachea in whales. There is no true oro-pharynx in whales. So the smell was coming from the blowhole and that meant the bronchial tree might be infected.

In my office, when I suspected a strep throat, it was routine to take a swab from the throat of the patient and test for the suspect bacteria. How do you do that for a whale ? Simple take the mountain to Mohammed.. I placed an agar plate on a bent coat hanger frame. Stuck the holder on a bamboo pole and put the plate over blowhole of the whale.

Whales cannot cough or sneeze, if they did they would likely drown. Instead of coughing whales rely on the explosive and volumetrically large tidal volume of their breaths to clear the bronchial tree. In effect each breath is a cough and the mist generated contains a true random sample of bacteria present in the lungs and bronchi.

The results from the first few smelly whales were negative nothing grew on the incubated plates. Finally one wonderful humpback (#385 Nevus) swam along the rail of the boat my son and I were on and coated my agar plate and arm with goop. The sample was sent to the lab with the unusal instructions to incubate the plate until something grew. Strongly pathogenic bacteria grow full colonies in 24 hours. Almost all pathogens show up in 48 hours. This wimpy bug took 240 hours to show up. It was a dark diptheroid bacteria with strict preference for blood agar.

To make a very long story short, the isolated organism was a previously undiscovered species of diptheroid that needs pressure to grow quickly. Dr. Linda Schlater of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service lab in Ames,Iowa called me one day to ask what she was doing "wrong" with the bug in her lab. She finally asked if there was a factor in the ocean environment that might affect both the whales and the bugs. It was a "EUREKA" moment. It had to be pressure! The effective pressure increases at one atmosphere for every 30 feet of depth. We quickly designed a modified 1950's pressure cooker from the kitchen and grew the samples in increasing steps of pressure until the cooker blew up.

The result of all of this is a non fatal form of diptheria in humpbacks. Humpbacks that dive too long and too deep develop diptheria and the pathognomonic bad breath of that disease. All of the whales found with bad breath were older than one and younger than three years. These are whales that are beginning to fend for themselves and are at the bottom of the social ladder.

Calves do not exhibit bad breath because they have no need to feed themselves and don't have to dive deeply. Adult whales have learned to assert themselves and elbow their way to the food. The whales with the greatest metabolic needs are nursing females. They are larger than males and will aggressively occupy preferred feeding areas. I define a preferred feeding area as rich in food and relatively shallow. Unaggressive whales are quickly driven off to less desirable feeding areas where food may be as plentiful but is found deeper. This means more work for the food but also means that the whale is under increased whole body pressure for longer periods of time. The bacteria will then grow more aggressively and cause diptheria. The disease causes an erosion of the mucosal lining of the trachea and the development of a pseudomembrane in the airway. The stench from the rotting tissues is the source of bad breath.

Fortunately the whale does not usually die from the episode. The whale probably feels poorly and tries to rest. That means spending long stretches of time at the surface. The effective pressure would then drop to one atmosphere and the bacteria could not grow at pathogenic rates. The disease triggers it's own cure.

Any questions? Please send me an email here at the "ASK" forum.

-Tom Ford


For more information, you can reach Dr. Ford at

Did You Know....

that bottlenose dolphins usually live to about 25 years of age and some have lived into their late 40's. Age is estimated by examining a sliced section of a tooth and counting growth layers produced during the aging process.

Bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphin species in the Gulf of Mexico and are estimated to number in the 35,000 to 45,000 range.

Bottlenose dolphins do not have olfactory nerves (as is the case in all toothed whales) which means they have no sense of smell. Dolphins do have taste buds. The skin of dolphins is sensitive to touch and the dolphin's sense of touch is well-developed. Dolphins can see quite well both in and out of the water.

Dolphins engage in types of "play" activities which can involve riding the bow or stern wake of boats, pressure waves of large whales, and ocean swells. A calf will ride in its mother's wake created when she is swimming. This helps the baby to swim and, therefore, enables both mother and calf to keep up with the pod. Dolphins may bear a calf every other year, and in the northern Gulf of Mexico, bottlenose dolphins give birth in the spring. Gestation period is about 12 months. Calves may be born either tail-first or head first and sometimes, there is an assisting dolphin referred to as the "auntie" dolphin (which can be male or female). The "auntie" dolphin is usually the only other dolphin which the mother will allow near her baby. The calf is usually 42 to 48 inches long and weighs 25 to 40 lbs. When a mother dolphin is angry with her calf, she will hold her misbehaving youngster on the bottom. A sort of "time out," one could guess.

Older dolphins as well as younger dolphins chase each other, toss seaweed to one another and carry objects around, often using the objects to interact with each other. Bottlenose dolphins have been observed working in groups to herd fish onto mud banks for an easy catch.

Dolphins can swim up to 40 km/hr.

It has been said that the dolphin has no known ememies among the marine dwellers. However, this is not correct as killer whales and sharks occasionally prey on bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins can be seen swimming and feeding with sharks which is contrary to the myth that if a dolphin is around, you won't see any sharks.

For more information on bottlenose dolphins, check out:

Bottlenose Dolphins - Sea World
Marine Mammal Fact Sheet - Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Did You Know...

that in 1941 the world's population of migrating whooping cranes fell to as few as 14 or 16? In 1937, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge between Rockport and Seadrift, Texas, was established to protect the wintering grounds of the remaining whooping cranes. Today's "whoopers" at the refuge are descendants of those few. There are now 320 whooping cranes in the world, including those in captivity and 25 cranes in two wild populations other than those at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho and Kissimmee Prairie in Florida). In 1870, between 500 and 1,400 whooping cranes inhabited North America. Before settlers moved west, whooping cranes nested from Illinois to southern Canada and winter migratory routes extended from the Carolinas to Mexico where whooping cranes made their winter homes.

The whooping cranes of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada's Northwest Territories and Alberta is the only wild flock in the world that was not established with human help. Each year, these whooping cranes fly south from their Canadian breeding ground in Wood Buffalo National Park, originally established to protect buffalo and was not known to be the breeding ground for whooping cranes until 1954, when a pilot spotted a pair of whooping cranes at the park. From this park, the whooping cranes make their way south to spend their winter with other south Texas residents in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge such as alligators, deer, javelinas, cougars, bobcats, raccoons, armadillos, and feral hogs.

Last February, at the height of the migratory season, an aerial survey showed a whopping whooper count of 156, the largest number counted since the federal government began to keep a census in the 1930s. Refuge authorities believe no whooping cranes died during the winter even though the wind chills at the refuge dropped to 8 degrees.

Whooping cranes are the tallest of all birds in North America standing at 5 and one-half feet with a wing span of about 7 feet. Whoopers have long necks and legs, snow white bodies, jet-black wing tips and a red and black head. Whooping cranes can live up to 24 years in the wild. The whooping crane's migration from Canada to Texas, a route which covers 2,600 miles, takes place in September with the whooping cranes arriving at the Aransas Wildlife refuge between late-October and mid-November. By late-April, the whoopers will have left the refuge and returned to their summer home in Canada.

Whooping cranes eat not only aquatic animals, shellfish, wild fruit and roots of plants, but also scavenge dead ducks, marsh birds and small rodents. And they also eat snakes and snails. Whooping cranes reach sexual maturity at 4 years and and choose one mate for life. The courtship of the whoopers begins in late winter to early spring and consists of loud vocalizations, wing flapping, head bowing, strutting and tremendous leaps into the air by one or both birds. This dance is also used to defend territory. Both the male and female whoopers share in the task of incubating the two large eggs that the female lays. Usually, only one of the two chicks is reared. Chicks swim as soon as they hatch and can fly within three months.

The whooping crane's choice of migration routes, nesting locations and wintering routes is learned behavior rather than innate. Young birds learn these routes by following their parents on the first migration. Some conservation experts have suggested that whooping cranes bred in captivity may be able to learn their migration routes by following humans driving trucks or light aircraft. In an effort to creat a wild flock with an alternate migratory route, sandhill cranes were used as "foster parents." In 1975, at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, whooping crane egss were placed in the nests of sandhill cranes. Sandhill cranes then reared the whooping crane chicks as their own teaching them feeding habits and imprinting the sandhill crane's new 850-mile migratory path to the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife in New Mexico. Unfortunately, the imprinting of the sandhill cranes as parents onto the whooping cranes was so complete, that the whooping cranes would not mate with other whooping cranes. Today, only 8 whooping cranes are left in this flock.

Because of loss of wetland habitat, shootings, collisions with power lines, disease and industrial pollution, the recovery of the whooping crane has been slow. The whooping crane's delayed breeding maturity and small clutch size make the population less capable of rebounding from these threats. Since the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population is the only existing breeding population, efforts are under way by both the the United States and Canadian Whooping Crane Recovery plans to establish additional breeding areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established a nesting area in Kissimmee Prairie in Florida by introducing nonmigratory captive-reared whooping cranes and therefore, providing an additional nesting ground out of concern that a disaster such as an oil spill could wipe out a single existing local population. With these efforts, the whooping crane population is slowly growing.

One afternoon in late November, friends and I stopped for a lunch break after kayaking along the shore near Goose Island State Park and near the Aransas Wildlife refuge. As we were about to leave, we spotted a pair of whooping cranes in the marsh nearby. While we watched, the pair took flight and flew over our heads crossing St. Charles Bay in the direction of the refuge. What a unexpected thrill to watch these rare and beautiful birds in flight.

A good launch point to kayak into the area is at the Cavasso Creek bridge on Hwy 35 paddling into St. Charles Bay. Another launch point is from a small boat launching area located on the San Antonio Bay side of Austwell, just north of the Aransas Wildlife refuge and east of Hwy 35. Kayaking into the Aransasa Wildlife area (surrounding bays) is permitted, but landing on the refuge itself is not. Visitors can, however, enter the 100,00 acre park off Hwy 35 and drive through or hike the designated trails and have a picnic while birdwatching. Admission is free. Great car camping is nearby at Goose Island State Park, but call for a reservation and information at 512/729-2858.



Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - park information, 512/286-3559

Update on whooping cranes at Aransas Wildlife refuge

More About Whooping Cranes - includes other links for whooping cranes as well as a map which shows migration corridor

World Wildlife Fund factsheet on whooping cranes

Detailed report on the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project - includes a list of publications.

Journey North News - Whooping Crane Migration Updates

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