Cetology is a scientific discipline that is centred on the study of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Centuries ago, naturalists were interested in the behaviour and anatomy of these giants, but did not have the resources available to them that modern researchers enjoy. The researchers of old could observe dead whales, but had very rare opportunities to see them alive. Even when they did spot a live creature, it would soon dip beneath the ocean’s surface and disappear from sight again. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, whales began to be hunted for their meat and blubber. However, they were still shy creatures that did not reveal much to the hunters aside from what they discovered after the animal was killed.
A marine scene featuring a school of dolphins composed symmetrically with fish in the interstices and clusters of sponges around the periphery at the ruins of Knōsos built by the Minoan, Mycenaean people.
Interestingly, some of the earliest available information on cetaceans comes from Aristotle, who was a Greek philosopher that was born in 384 Before our Common Era (BCE). Although his information was limited, he indicated an understanding of whales quite ahead of his time. For example, he knew that they were mammals and used a blowhole and lungs in respiration, as opposed to gills. His insight seems to indicate that he had examined and probably dissected at least one cetacean himself.
Then, when the hunting of whales began to threaten the cetacean population, the governmental organisations of the world began to sit up and take note. They began to invest money into various projects that would allow for the observation of live whales within their natural environment, with data capturing as the main objective. This was done with the aim of establishing formal laws that would regulate the hunting of these animals and the protection of their population numbers.
After the Second World War, which ended in 1945, the study of whales boomed. This was in response to the declining numbers, but actually had more to do with the fact that the technology developed and refined for use in the war opened up new opportunities and possibilities in terms of the study of cetaceans. Since then, these animals (although still elusive) have been revealed in far more detail.
A number of techniques are used today to observe and study whales. Spending hours, even days, on board a boat is usually an unavoidable part of observing whales, dolphins and porpoises within their natural environment. Still, these animals spend a large proportion of their lives under the surface of the water, making above-water observation all but redundant for the vast majority of the time. So, tagging and tracking systems have proven most useful to ascertain their movements and underwater behaviours. Tags are attached to individuals and convey information, via satellites, to the scientists at receiving stations.
Some scientists still feel that it is necessary to capture whales and study them as a dead sample. For this reason, they fight for their right to hunt whales for research purposes. With the many advances in technology, many feel that this is unnecessary and harmful to the already-depleted population numbers of most of the surviving whale species.
There is no doubt that it is crucial to understand cetaceans if they are to be protected and this is the main purpose of cetology. The means of study may vary, but it is vital to remember that we, as humans, have a very special responsibility towards the wildlife at our mercy.
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