Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: Weird Waters

WEIRD WATERS: The Lake and Sea Monsters of Scandinavia and the Baltic States
by Lars Thomas with Jacob Rask
CFZ Press, 2011

The title of this slender volume might lead one to fear it was an amateur piece of work in the unfortunate sense of the word. That, however, is decidedly not true.  The book is an engaging, enjoyable tour of Scandinavian waters with a lot of firsthand accounts and some bits of information I've not seen anywhere else. 
Thomas is a marine biologist by training, and it shows in his proper handling of zoological terms, species identification, etc.  The only point I didn't understand was when he remarks on a pendant made the hooks from a giant squid's suckers (left embedded in a boat).  Surely Thomas knows the true giant squid has no hooks on its suckers, and he doesn't suggest another species. (The logical suspect, the colossal squid, is strictly a Southern hemisphere animal.)  Thomas also wanders off the purely zoological into some specters and other "things" seen in seas and lakes, but he is the author, and of course that's up to him. (He doesn't argue for the reality of anything supernatural, though, he just presents the stories.)
Being of Danish ancestry, I was especially intrigued by the episode where a "sea monk" (large squid) was caught and sent alive to king Christian III, a distant relation of mine, who put it in the castle moat and attempted to talk to it.  (Okay, so my ancestors were kings, not rocket scientists. The fact that Danish legend includes a "mercow" doesn't say much for the nation, either.) Thomas tries hard, in creature reports, to suggest known species that might have been misidentified, so kudos for that. 
The most intriguing bit here is a series of sightings on the coast and in a lake near the ocean in Iceland of what seems to be very large long-necked seal.  I was already disposed to think such a creature was at least possible, and Thomas moved the needle further away from "silly" toward "maybe." 
Thomas throws in some science about known species (he has, for example, seen a bottlenose dolphin with two dorsal fins, and collected the first report I've read of pilot whales with the same anomaly.) He adds a good bibliography, though I would have liked more direct source notes.  Some of his eyewitness reports are from people who remained anonymous, always a bit of a disappointment, but would you tell everyone you'd seen a mercow?
Bottom line: If you are interested in legends of seas and lakes, Scandinavian history, or the possibility of large unknown species still to be found, you are going to like this book a lot.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New Mammal Species... and it's really cute

At the southern tip of Madagascar are forests little-known by humans. When humans do go in, they find things.  Like the Lavasoa Dwarf lemur, the world's newest mammal. Cheirogaleus lavasoensis is the official name.  In a reminder this species-description stuff takes a long time, 16 specimens were trapped between 2001 and 2006.  Discovery never ends....

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Totally awesome Shuttle video

What's it like to see a launch from the Shuttle itself? This video will show you. What's it like to be a separated Solid Rocket Booster (SRB), reentering and tumbling to your recovery point? And what does it SOUND like while all this is going on?
This stunning video, using SRB-mounted cameras and microphones as its only sources, will show you more than you ever knew about this incredible journey.
I was in the California desert for the first-ever landing of a Shuttle returning from space. It was awesome. This high-definition video is - well, in a lot of ways, even more awesome.

Thanks to Steve Saffel for posting this on FaceBook.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Investigating the Impossible

INVESTIGATING THE IMPOSSIBLE: Sea-Serpents in the Air, Volcanoes that Aren't, and Other Out-of-Place Mysteries
Ulrich Magin
Anomalist Books, 2011

Magin's book reminded me of the late Willy Ley's collection, On Earth and in the Sky.  Magin is interested in everything odd (he calls such things "fortean," although he's the only writer I've ever seen use the title based on Charles Fort's name without a capital F).  He has a good idea what can and can't be explained with the all-purpose label "folklore." Whether it's claims of petrified ships found deep in mountains, anomalous dirigibles, or Italian lake monsters, Magin gives them a fair shake and a well-documented analysis.  When something clearly is not literally true, like phantom armies in the sky, he explains how such stories came to be and how they are reshaped and exaggerated over time. 
My special interest is cryptozoology, and Magin turns up some interesting facts.  He notes, for example, that a there are no clear "sea serpent" reports from residents of the Iberian peninsula, but there are stories from passing English ships, which leads him to muse on the cultural origins of such creatures.  One can read on websites that an ancient king named Sargon (one of two to bear the name) met a sea monster, but Magin shows this is a fabrication no matter which Sargon it's ascribed to.  In a long-ago sea monster case Bernard Heuvelmans wrote off as a hoax, Magin argues it was instead a most interesting phenomenon, a Mediterranean undersea volcano. 
Magin includes no illustrations, which is unfortunate given he does talk about some images in the text.  There are a few mistakes in the book that seem to have slipped through editing (there are not 364 days in a year!), and the print on some pages was oddly faded. These detracted from my enjoyment of the the book: I gave the book 3.5 stars on Amazon and would have given it 4 if not for these points. However, this is still a very good disquisition on the impossible, improbable, or simply unique.

Fusion: Not easy or cheap, but vital

The National Ignition Facility, as this article notes, has yet to achieve ignition.  For billions of dollars, we've achieved one purpose of the NIF - simulating fusion detonations to ensure US nukes are reliable without having to actually detonate any - but it was hoped NIF would achieve fusion power in 2012.  The Administration is proposing to cut back its funding, cap contributions to ITER, an international consortium hoping to achieve fusion in 2020 using a different process, and cancel a fusion lab proposed for MIT. 
I understand the frustration.  There are physicists who think NIF isn't going to produce power.  But I suggest the costly experiment needs to be funded further. We need to KNOW we're not turning back just short of solving the global energy crisis.
I have no faith in the cold fusion (LENR) folks, who are (mostly) sincere but can't produce anything. Even claims of independent testing of one device, the eCat, are shot down by skeptics who point out the inventor still dictated the setup and the results claimed use processes that don't and can't exist unless of fundamental understanding of particle physics is wrong.
The NIF people have agreed to a three-year timeline for the fusion power experiments. We should fund the three years.  I know there are countless competing needs, but as long as we have a real chance of changing the entire world economy for the better, I'd vote to go on.  Fusion is the only large-scale power for cities and industries that's going to work.  (Solar is great but can't power New York or the auto plants - the requirements are too big for a technology that works best on a local scale.)
Am I a physicist? Nope. This is strictly one citizen's vote.  Fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What do the oceans need from us?

Well, they need a lot.  But there are some hard truths as we think about marine conservation.
The first is that several billion people need protein, and most are not going to switch to soybeans anytime soon.  Fishing can't be stopped.  But it has to be better controlled. 
We're doing something called "fishing down the food chain." As the big fish like halibut are depleted, we catch the smaller fish they used to eat. What's next? There are already fisheries for krill.  We're facing the age of slime, where the dominant creatures of the oceans could be jellyfish.  There are fisheries for jellyfish (more properly "sea jellies," but it's not catching on, no more than "sea stars" has for starfish), but they are small scale, and people are not lining up in most nations for the little nutrition available from them. 
The point is that sharp limitations on fishing are necessary but hard. They affect the livelihoods of millions of real people and the protein sources of billions. Those people need other work and other food sources.  Part of the answer is properly regulated fish farming. I certainly don't know all the answers.
I'm not one of the people calling for huge transfers of wealth - that's a one-time thing, not a permanent answer.  But this is going to cost all the people who can afford to downsize a little - me, for one.  And I'm good with that, although I'd much rather do my share by giving to effective organizations I choose than by having the government choosing for me.
It's not yet not hopeless.  Institutes like this are looking for solutions. As Sylvia Earle (nicknamed "Her Deepness" by admirers, of whom I am one) says, "We have time, but not a lot of time."
What does this have to do with my usual themes of zoological discoveries and cryptozoology? A lot.  There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of fish species we've yet to discover. There are denizens of all types - sharks, octopus, squid, even cetaceans - we've not named yet.  And there are, just possibly, a couple of animals the size of beaked whales or larger that have spawned the legends of the "sea serpent."
The way we're going, we're going to finish the job of cutting the food sources out from under the large marine animals - known and unknown - that so fascinate us.  The eel or pinniped or whatever it is that constitutes the true sea serpent could pass from the scene before we even confirm it was here.
So think about what you can do.  The oceans need our help.  The sea serpent, whatever and wherever it is, needs our help, too.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: Dawn of the Deed

The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex
John A. Long
University of Chicago Press, 2012

Where did sex as we know it come from? As paleontologist John A. Long explains, it popped up, so to speak, in the placoderms, armored fish of 380 million years ago. Long traces the topic from his discovery of odd little structures on an Australian fossil he named Materpisces (mother fish).  Sex emerged as a way to more reliably pass along genes, and eventually to bond in some species, as opposed to the original vertebrate strategy of dumping sperm and egg into the water and swimming off to do something else.  It's a bit odd that copulation developed in fishes whose bony plating could only have complicated matters.  I wondered how my favorite prehistoric creature, the orca-sized Dunkleosteus terrelli, managed the feat while carrying a half-ton of armor.  Long explains that, as the pladoderms developed modified fin rays into organs called claspers (still seen in modern skates and rays), they became long enough to get around the armor problem.  It still wasn't easy: claspers have often been seemingly painful things for females to endure, and the claspers in at least some placoderms only pointed toward the tail. This means sex was done in a position where the female was essentially being shoved into the seafloor.  Long continues his readable (if sometimes a bit technically worded) account through the problems of dinosaur sex (some people wondered what would happen to your blood pressure if you're having sex with your head several stories above the action) to such modern oddities as the penis of the Argentine duck, which is longer than its body.  This is, above all else, a scientific detective story, as Long and his collegues go through painstaking field work and fossil cleaning punctuated by "Eureka" moments and ending with Long explaining fossil fish sex to the Queen of England (she listened politely).  Readers with an interest in evolutionary biology will like this book very much, as will people who read it just for some conversation-stopping tidbits to toss out at cocktail parties.  An excellent book all around.

Book Reviews: A Book of Beasts

The Big, Bad Book of Beasts: The World's Most Curious Creatures
by Michael Largo

William Morrow, 2013

Mr. Largo clearly had a grand time writing this book, a romp through strange (and seemingly mundane) creatures of zoology, cryptozoology, legend, and hoax. He has a great selection of 120 or so creatures, a bevy of good illustrations, some interesting tidbits of science (the electric eel is nicely explained), and considerable humor (I wish I'd thought of calling the platypus "nature's combo platter.") It's marred by a carelessness with facts. Saying that a prehistoric shark's jaws were in constant motion, for example, puzzled me - I'm not sure if he was trying to be funny or he actually thought this fish was chomping 24/7. There are other bits like that (dragons could be a folk memory of late-surviving dinosaurs? Umm, 60 million years is a heck of a gap), but my overall impression is that this book is a lot of fun if you don't take everything in it literally. Most people (all except nitpickers like myself) will definitely enjoy it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Musing on the The Marvelous Octopus

I don't know what brought octopuses (that is the proper plural) to mind today.  But they are are an amazing group. 
They have, essentially, part of their brains distributed throughout their skins.  They are the masters of camouflage.  They can be huge.  They are great escape artists, as anyone who'd kept them in tanks can attest. And they are smart.  We don't know exactly how best to test them, but what we can tell is that they are a lot smarter than you'd expect of what looks to us like a blob with eyes.  They are tool-users, even tool-makers.
They can be impossibly weird.  Take the gelatinous octopi of the genus Allapossus, short-armed, large-eyed creatures with a maximum span of at least two meters.  Gelatinous octopi are so called because their flesh is soft and translucent, as if they were jellyfish pressed into an octopus mold.  One found in the 1980s sported  eyes six inches across. Or take the new deepwater species spotted by the submersible Alvin in 1994.  The world's press carried the tale of this seemingly confused mollusc, a male about 15" long.  It was attempting to mate with a much larger octopus – also a male.  Apparently encounters are so rare in the depths that octopuses will try a match with any of their kind they come across: not what we humans would call “safe sex,” since you’re as likely to be eaten as you are to procreate.  The crew of the French submersible Cyana a spotted another new species of cirrate, or fringed, octopus in 1989.  This cephalopod, also a Pacific denizen, displayed truly bizarre behavior.  When poked by the sub’s robot arm, the annoyed octopus gathered its arms together, trapping water in the membranes between them and taking on the appearance of a submarine pumpkin.  This action is presumably designed to startle predators.  It certainly had that effect on the French aquanauts. 

But back to the camoflauge thing. The champ is the recently  described mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), which changes it colors, shape, and texture to imitate fish, crabs, sea snakes, and my other creatures, mimicry may be more widespread than we’d thought. The Atlantic longarm octopus (Macrotritopus defilippi) can mimic a species called the peacock flounder by swimming with its arms trailing back like fins and tail. It even contorts its body to bring the eyes close together on one side. When a diver reported seeing this off the Netherlands Antilles and passed this information to Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in 2004, Hanlon flat-out didn’t believe him – until the diver showed him a picture. Mimicry by any Atlantic cephalopod was unknown.  As Hanlon points out, a lot of animals camouflage or imitate, but the illusion only holds while they remain still. Cephalopods – a few of them, at least – take it much further by mimicking movement and keeping the appearance of something else while on the move.  (A special case is a species of cuttlefish in which males look like females to clip past other males and get close to desired females.)  Some deep-water species of octopus (and squid) are normally transparent but can switch instantly to being “colored in” with red pigment if that will help avoid a predator.

Yep, octopuses are weird. There's a scientific term for you.  But nothing else fits. 
(Photos NOAA)

Approaching Apollo, 44 Years On

July 16, 1969: As a space-crazed nine-year-old, I rode in a Piper Cherokee borrowed by my dad from his employer in Vero Beach, Floriida, to watch a streak of fire grow from Cape Canaveral while an announcer shouted, "And Apollo 11 is off for the Moon!"  (My snapshots, alas, showed only sky.)

July 20, 1969: My parents kept waking me up as I tried to stay up to see the first step on the Moon. I think I dozed through it.  I still marvel at the first man on the Moon.  Could any hero in this day and age be so humble? Neil Armstrong was not a recluse: he merely avoided the limelight that his gregarious co-pilot so enjoyed. 

1996: At a space conference in Albuquerque, I am presenting my vision of low-cost rides to space for academic and scientific satellites using surplus ICBM stages.  About halfway through, I notice a man has slipped into the front row. He wears a bright red sportcoat and a big Buzz Lightyear button.  He is Buzz Aldrin.  Later, as the moonwalker signs my paper in the Proceedings, I ask what he thought of my idea.  "It's a good idea," he said, "but the company I'm working with has a better one."  Irony: Buzz's company fizzled. A version of my idea is flying today.  Who could have guessed?  (I've met Buzz on two other occasions, and he was always a great guy.)

July 18, 2013: I wonder what the hell happened. Not just technologically, but where is the imagination, the spirit, the willingness to challenge the unknown?  If you offered me a chance to fly to Mars with only 50% odds of survival, I'd get in line right now.  But NASA would never let me go. We can't agree on a destination for human spaceflight or even how to get Americans to orbit without paying the Russians for rides. We seem to have taken to heart Q's words to Captain Picard, "You'd better go home and crawl under the bed. It's not safe out here."   

The horizon is still there, "the Land of Beyond, that gleams at the gates of the sky," as Robert Service once wrote.   We are meant to explore. We are denying who we are. 

Neil, Buzz, Mike: You are still my heroes.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

NBC News notices the microspace revolution

I've long been writing about the microspace revolution: the gradual supplementation and even replacement of large satellites by increasingly smaller craft, enabled both by miniaturization and by new ways of thinking about space. Technology and thinking have to advance hand in hand for a revolution to take hold.  After several false starts, this one is on its way, enabled in large part by the CubeSat, a satellite "bus" or frame 10 centimeters square. 

This NBC News Report covers some of the recent developments.  A "space agency" is no longer authomatically defined as a large government organization: it can be a university or a high school group with a CubeSat kit costing in the low tens of thousands of dollars and some ingenuity.  Commercially available  electronics, as in smartphones, are one element being put to use: NASA has already flown a satellite with a smartphone component as the on-board computer. 

No, microsatellites and nanosatellites (CubeSats are the latter) can't do everything.  They do not yet have the ability to form precise "virtual apertures" for radar and communications uses. But what they can do is amazing, and it's only going to grow. 

Image: NASA CubeSat. This one is closed up for launch: after deployment, CubeSats can unfold antrennas, solar cells, or even solar sails.

NASA Initiative to build educational CubeSats.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

NASA's talking Mars again (Good!)

The future of NASA is inextricably linked to Mars. It's not only a planet of great scientific interest, but the only one humans might visit in any of our lifetimes.  While the fight goes on about human spaceflight goals, NASA has planned out the next robotic Mars mission: one that may answer the question of life. Congress and the President are naturally concerned with budgets these days, but we're talking a very manageable slice of the 1/4 of 1 percent of the Federal budget that goes to the only agency seeking out the secerts of the universe.  Fund Mars 2020!

"The Mars 2020 Science Definition Team (SDT) has outlined a mission concept for a science-focused, highly mobile rover to explore and investigate in detail a site on Mars that likely was once habitable. The SDT-preferred mission concept employs new in situ scientific instrumentation in order to seek signs of past life (had it been there), select and store a compelling suite of samples in a returnable cache, and demonstrate technology for future robotic and human exploration of Mars. "


Book review: Narwhals

Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World
by Todd McLeish

Todd McLeish gives us a great introduction to a striking animal.

While most everyone knows about narwhals, all we remember it for is the tusk.  As striking as that tusk or horn is (it's a giant tooth, essentially, but one that grows in a unique spiral pattern), there's a lot more to the animal than that. 
The author recounts his travels to see narwhals in North America, Greenland, and Iceland. He speaks with biologists, indigenous hunters, and various other folks. Narwhal hunting is legal, though regulated, and the tusks are still prized worldwide by collectors of natural history items.  (The tusks cannot be imported legally into the U.S., though a Canadian dealer told the author it could be arranged.)  Narwhals are still important sources of meat and muktuk and other useful items in the far North. McLeish  attends hunts and, while a confirmed animal lover, is not opposed to controlled hunting in communities where the animal is an important food source and the entire carcass is put to use.
Now, about that tusk...The males, we learn, do not use their seven-foot tusks to joust or for defense. They do have an odd habit of raising their tusks into the air in pairs or groups, like knights hoisting their lances after a tournament, and sometimes touching them together.  (About one half of one percent of narwhals have two tusks, and occasional tusked females are reported.)  McLeish also reports on the controversy about what the tusk is for. It's not for grubbing up food or for breaking through ice.  Most cetologists regard it as strictly a sexual display item, like antlers, but a few researchers point to what appear to be nerve channels (this tooth is, compared to your teeth, essentially inside out) and think it has important functions as a sensor probe, testing water temperature and salinity in ways that might help males find females. 
Narwhals are not endangered, with a population of 80,000 or so, but they face unknown effects from climate change and the accumulation of PCBs and other toxins.  They are, McLeish argues convincingly, worth protecting as a part of the Arctic ecosystem and as a species admirably adapted to harsh conditions where even other whales are rare.
There are a couple of subjects I hoped the author would touch on to make this a more comprehensive book on the species. One is the hybridization of narwhals and belugas, which is rare but a confirmed fact. The other is the strange reports of narwhals or something like them from the opposite end of the Earth: a southern narwhal, while reported only a couple of times, is still an interesting topic. 
Despite these small omissions, this is a terrific book. I read it through at one sitting, and and I now know a lot more about these unique cetaceans and their world.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Seals lost - Can they be found?

The Case of the Caribbean Monk Seal 

Caribbean monk seal range map
U.S. Government map of the former range of the Carribean monk seal

Mammals have invaded the sea many times. The sea otters made themselves mostly at home,and  the sea mink was doing fine until humans exterminated it. The sirenians, the manatees and dugongs, are threatened but not yet in dire straits, unless you count Steller's sea cow, which lasted only a few decades after humans found it.  The cetaceans have produced some 70 living species, and the pinnipeds - the seals and sea lions – were mostly doing all right about a century ago despite longtime hunting of some species. 
Now the Mediterranean monk seal has been driven to the edge, its Hawaiian cousin is threatened (why do these close relatives live so far apart? No one knows), and the Caribbean monk seal is - well - is it extinct?
In my first book, I wrote hopefully of Monachus tropicalis and its chances for survival.  In my second, I was still hopeful. Now... ugh.
The monk seal was the only pinniped endemic to the Caribbean, and the first New World mammal recorded by Christopher Columbus.  Columbus’ men killed eight of the abundant, large (up to 200 kg or more), curious animals they called “sea wolves.”   Unfortunately, other humans found them vulnerable too.  (Homo sapiens is not coming off well in this article.)
In 1911, the last large colony – about 200 seals on islands off Yucatan – was slaughtered.  A lone individual was killed near Key West, Florida, in 1933.  A small group of seals on islands off Jamaica was observed until the early 1950s, but vanished.  Except for scattered individual sightings, that was it, seemingly. The U.S. government, for one, lists no confirmed sightings after 1952.
In 1997, the last major survey effort was carried out. It offered some renewed hope. When 93  Haitian and Jamaican fishermen were interviewed about marine mammals, 21 included the monk seal, and 16  said they’d seen one within the last two years.  
Since then, however, there’s been nothing. The U.S. dropped it from the Endangered Species List in 2008 due to extinction. It’s been suggested some reports of Caribbean monk seals could be caused by California sea lions (Zalophus califonianus) from oceanic parks along Florida’s Gulf Coast. California sea lions are normally darker than monk seals, but their size ranges overlap, and the two could certainly be confused at a distance.  Some sightings may involve wayward members of other species.
Must we definitely close the file? Well, we do have the example of the Galapagos fur seal. This animal was thought extinct not once but twice.  Its habitat was more remote, though. Traffic in the Caribbean is far higher than in the monk seal's abbreviated heyday. The IUCN agrees we've lost the species, and the hope based on the 1997 survey has pretty well evaporated.
I usually write this blog to talk about new discoveries or animals that have been, or may be, rediscovered. Today, though, I'm writing my personal obituary for the Caribbean monk seal.  I don't think we'll see it again. The best way to honor its passing is to save its fellow seals and sea lions - while we still can.  


Adam, Peter, and Gabriela Garcia. 2003. “New information on the natural history, distribution, and skull size of the extinct (?) West Indian Monk Seal, Monachus tropicalis,” Marine Mammal Science, 19:2, p.297.
Boyd, I.L., and M.P. Stanfield.  1998.  “Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies,” Oryx, 32, p.310.
The Monachus Guardian (on-line journal) (2),
Rice, Dale. 1998.  Marine Mammals of the World.  Lawrence, KS: The Society for Marine Mammology.
Swanson, Gail.  2000.  “Final Millennium for the Caribbean Monk Seal,” The Monachus Guardian 3(1),
Walters, Mark.  1997.  “Ghost of a Monk Seal,” Animals, November/December, p.23.


Monday, July 01, 2013

Wilson's Whale - still a mystery

Dr. Edward A. Wilson was a painter/naturalist on board the 1901-04 Discovery expedition to the Antarctic, led by Robert Falcon Scott. In 1902, Wilson painted an unknown whale with a high, slender dorsal fin and a solid black back, with no orca-type eyepatch observed. (One image does indicate a white underside.) I wrote in the chapter on mystery cetaceans in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence that the distinctive markings of an orca could not have been overlooked, and Richard Ellis and Dr. Darren Naish reviewed that chapter for me without objecting to that statement. Now I wonder.
What made me wonder was the paper by Pitman, et. al., on an orca called Type D.  Type D, it seems, is a rarely observed but very distinctive orca that may be a separate species.  It's relatively small for an orca, and has  a tiny eyepatch and no gray dorsal "cape" marking.  In other words, it's not a perfect match to Wilson's whale - he'd have had to miss the eyepatch in his observations -  but it looks more like it than any creature yet documented. 

Wilson's whale. Note the white underside in the top picture.(I believe the picture, copied from Heuvelmans here, to be out of copyright: if anyone knows differently, please tell me).

File:Killer Whale Types.jpg
Type D (Wikimedia Commons)

The dates of sighting are given as 28 and 29 January: Discovery stopped at Cape Crozier on 22 January and reached and named King Edward Land on 30 January, so my amateur reckoning puts them between 76 and 77 South. This creates a problem. The Type D has not definitely been identified below 60, and Robert Pitman told me in correspondence he can't imagine it goes below 65 or so - the water is just too cold for it. As for the visual match, Pitman writes, "Intriguing speculation but it would be difficult to say with any certainty - just not quite enough in the illustrations to be convincing."  He doesn't have an opinion on what Wilson's whale was, though he notes that, at the time, there was thought to be just one species of orca (heck, a hundred years after Wilson that's still what we thought) and it wasn't clear whether Wilson was saying his whale was not an orca (I have to get Wilson's book on the expedition).

Anyway, Wilson's whale is a mystery. I thought for a bit there I'd solved it, but no.  If it was a Type D orca, it was way out of its range, and if it was some other orca, then Wilson could hardly have missed the markings.  So what was it? An odd orca of another type, one with minimal markings? An unknown type orca? Something else entirely? 

Whales still have their secrets.

Thanks to Robert L. Pitman