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David Helvarg

David Helvarg

Posted: March 11, 2010 04:06 PM

Sexy Celebrity Seas

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So now that dolphins have won their first Oscar for The Cove, the documentary about Flipper's former trainer Ric O'Barry and his fight to stop the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, what other piscine celebrities might we see emerging from the briny depths of our ocean world? TMZ take note.

Obviously you have your Free Willy-type Orcas also known as killer whales (or in the case of one Sea World captive linked to three deaths, serial killer whales). You have what your scientists call white sharks but what their publicists rebranded great white sharks or fabulous white sharks (see my story, Shark is the new Dolphin). Of course, blue whales have been singing the blues since before Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in that biopic. Your humpbacks have long been known for their singing ability (their first solo album came out in the 1970s) but are now increasingly in demand for stunt work with their breaching trick where they jump full-bodied out of the water like 40-ton versions of snowboarder Shaun White. You'll see some of their best work in Disney's major new film Oceans, coming out April 22, Earth Day (Ocean Day is June 8). While I don't consider myself a die-hard fan of Humpback Mountain I have seen these whales feeding on fresh fish off Alaska in the summer and then spending their winters breeding off Hawaii, and if that's not proof that they're highly intelligent, I don't know what is.

Still, since Tom Hanks celebrated the political wisdom of the cognitively challenged in Forrest Gump, sea critters without brains or backbones have also been getting better parts in the movies. For about a fin you can see the appearance of computer generated ocean jellies and coral tubeworms re-imaged as airborne floaters and jungle plants in Jim Cameron's epic movie Avatar, whose otherworldly marine phosphorescent beauty, he freely admits, was inspired by his diving and oceanic explorations.

But of course the ocean, like Hollywood or a wolf eel, also has its dark underbelly, and I'm not just talking about krill addiction. Many of the sea's leading stars (including sea stars) have sexual reproductive strategies that would make Tiger Woods blush.

Some sea critters like sponges and shellfish are hermaphrodites, indiscriminate broadcast spawners though I'd consider that more generous than shellfish. A number of fish are transgender. Take your goliath grouper (formerly known as the Jewfish, one of my peeps). Groupers all start out as females, but as they grow older and larger they become males. Unfortunately with so many big males being fished out you tend to get an abundance of females with little chance to meet new guys and make baby groupers. Evolution, not being sexist, applies the same reproductive strategy to anemone (or Nemo) fish, only with the largest and most protective of any grouping being the alpha female. If she dies the next largest male will convert over several days to become the new alpha female. In Finding Nemo Disney Pictures just wasn't prepared to show Nemo's dad becoming his new mom.

And then of course you have your Atlantic bottlenose dolphins like Flipper whose sex habits are closer to Hell's Angels' than hippies (didn't know you could pull a train through the water, did you?). Also (and this may be the time for young children to stop reading) your terminally cute and cuddly G-rated sea otters, like some Hollywood agents, turn out to be voracious marine-weasels with a penchant for rough sex.

The male otter's arms (legs, whatever) are effective for grooming their fine pelts but are too short for getting a good grip on a mate. So they get firm purchase by biting down on the female's nose before going for a little splendor in the kelp. Afterward you can often spot the females hauled up on rocks along the shore, their fur matted and their noses bloody. It's not hard to imagine that a female with a heavily scarred nose, like Madonna in her "Truth or Dare" days, might get a reputation as an easy otter.

But whatever you think about these celebrity sea critters as role models for American youth, we owe them big-time. Over a million sea otters have been killed for their pelts as have millions of seals, seabirds and sea turtles (all seven species of which are now endangered). Tens of millions of whales were killed for their oil and meat before the 1980s ban on commercial whaling and now the U.S. government is considering going along with a proposed International Whaling Commission plan to renew hunting permits. The dolphin slaughter documented in The Cove has not yet ended while large intelligent and culturally collaborate animals like orcas continue to live foreshortened lives in captivity while their family pods decline in the wild. There are only about 3,000 white sharks left on the planet, about the same number as wild tigers.

Globally we're killing off hammerhead sharks, bluefin tuna and other marine wildlife faster than they can reproduce. In fact with all the cascading threats to ocean life from industrial overfishing, pollution, loss of habitat and climate change, I worry that the next epic blockbuster may be ApocalypSea Now!