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Sleeping  Cetaceans

It's awesome to see dolphins playing at the surface and the more dynamic they are the more exciting the experience. Sometimes, though, you can wish they'd sit still just for a moment so you could see all the detail without needing to freeze them in time with a camera.

This is exactly the wish that was granted to me when we saw a family of pilot whales resting at the surface, lying half above the water and ducking beneath the wavelets now and then to keep themselves wet. They looked half asleep and they were quite literally. Cetaceans sleep half of their brain at a time, the other hemisphere staying awake to breathe and remain alert for predators. When they're sleeping at the surface, their behaviour is called 'logging.'

I'd known the word for a while but I'd always had it attached to that process of 'unihemispheric sleep' and tied up with the sort of logging we do every day: logging in, logging out. One half of the brain clocking in to keep on the lookout while the other knocks off to get some sleep. I knew that the term must predate this concept but it wasn't until I saw them bobbing on the surface that it struck me that the word's origin is an awful lot simpler than that: they literally look like logs. Logs designed by an artist.

Watching them peacefully floating, almost as still as the jellyfish, their nickname seemed comically ironic: cheetahs of the sea. I tried to remember what else I know about them and recalled that they get their name from their amazing ability to dive and resurface with enormous speed. They hunt squid too large for them to fight by dragging them to the surface so fast that said prey's organs explode from the pressure differential. How cool is that?!

Dolphins though they are, it's not hard to see where they got their official name either. They look like miniature whales, with bulbous heads containing exceptionally sensitive sonar equipment and a 'melon' to amplify the incoming signals. Though they were sleeping, I knew that the waking hemisphere of their brain had us very much on their radar, acknowledging but dismissing us as we cruised past. The sense of peace these resting cetaceans exude is contagious and quiet washed over the boat as we watched them. Quiet, and a sense of being very lucky to see these awesome creatures in a state of absolute rest.

By Oscar Hawes - Field Communications Officer

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