It’s winter whale-watching season, when thousands of gray whales decide to leave the bone-chilling waters of the Arctic for margaritas and sun-drenched beaches in the Gulf of Mexico.
Their southern migration brings them particularly close to the Oregon Coast in December and January, when humans with a keen eye might notice something peculiar about the whales’ swimming patterns — most of them swim to the right.
The phenomenon was recently confirmed by a group of scientists at Oregon State University who spent a gajillion federal grant dollars to track the movements of more than five dozen whales as they swam along the coast. Using motion-sensing tags, the researchers made an unprecedented discovery: Most whales are right-handed!
I didn’t even know they had hands!
Sometimes the whales just swim in circles, but that might be the effects of the margaritas.
Results of the research, which was funded primarily by the U.S. Office of Wasting Taxpayers’ Money, were published this month in the journal Current Biology. It’s good news for fishermen, who often have to decide whether to pass slow-moving whales on the right or left.
Fisherman No. 1: “Do you think that whale is right-handed or left-handed?”
Fisherman No. 2: “I bet you a gajillion dollars that it’s right-handed.”
Fisherman No. 1: “How do you know?
Fisherman No. 2: “I read about it in Current Biology.”
The magazine article quoted Ari Friedlaender, a cetacean expert with the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU.
“Most of the movements we tracked that involved ‘handedness’ — perhaps as much as 90 percent — involved 90-degree side rolls, which is how they feed most of the time,” said Friedlaender. “Blue whales approach a patch of krill and turn on their sides. We found many exclusively rolled to their right, fewer rolled just to their left, and the rest exhibited a combination.”
Oh my goodness. How did we ever live without knowing this?
And all it took was a gajillion tax dollars!
So what prompted the study? I can picture it now. A group of OSU scientists are hanging out in an underground laboratory, drinking margaritas on a cold winter day and wishing they were in Mexico, when Friedlaender opens his email.
Scientist No. 1: “Hey, we just got a $50 gajillion grant! What are we going to use it for?
Scientist No. 2: “Pizza.”
Scientist No. 3: “Margaritas.”
Scientist No. 4: “Let’s buy a yacht.”
They agree to all three and, after loading up their “research” yacht with margaritas and pizza, they head out to the sea where they spend the first 50 gajillion trying to find out where the whales’ hands are. Having no luck, they order motion sensor tags from Amazon and put them on the whales. (I don’t know exactly how they managed that, but it probably involved a lot of margaritas.)
So, the scientists follow the whales, stopping in exotic ports such as Cabo and Maui to pick up more margaritas, pizza and cute research assistants. It’s all fun and games — until the grant money runs out.
Back at OSU, stone sober, they scramble to present results of their “research.”
They come up with “Whales are big.” “Whales eat krill.” “Whales like to swim.”
Finally, in an act of desperation, one of them actually looks at the data collected by the sensor tags.
Scientist No. 1: “Hey guys. Look at this. The data shows that whales are right-handed.”
Scientist No. 2: “I didn’t know whales have hands.”
Scientist No. 3: “Where did we park the yacht?”
So they present their findings, using big scientific terms such as “left brain, right eye phenomenon,” “lateralized behavior” and “vamos a beber mas margaritas” (let’s drink more margaritas).
Meanwhile, the whales are enjoying a good laugh. Especially the whales still sporting motion-sensing tags.
Whale No. 1: “Hey. What should we do about these tags on our backs?”
Whale No. 2: “I know. Let’s spend the next couple of months swimming to the left.”
If scientists are going to spend a gajillion tax dollars on research, why not do it on some something worthwhile, such as determining the right way to put toilet paper on the roll? Or why dryers eat our socks? Or why whales want to leave their care-free life of margaritas and Mexico’s sun-drenched beaches in the first place?
Scott Graves was editor of the Curry Coastal Pilot from September 2000 to November 2017. He can be reached by calling 541-469-3123 or firstname.lastname@example.org