National Geographic : 1956 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine Nobody knows how this electrical impulse is generated. It must originate in some yet unknown chemical action. The nervous sys tem operates as a control, we know, but if the nerves inside the heart are cut, there still will be regular electrical impulses generated. The rate, speed, and time intervals of these im pulses tell much about the heart's health. The electrocardiograph, which records such data, is an important tool, but we still have much to learn from it. What might be regarded as a serious sign of danger in one man's heart, for example, may prove to be within the range of normal action in another's. The physical size of the heart itself may cause misleading differences in the cardiogram. What might seem at first glance to be a malfunction may be due merely to a heart larger than average. Whale Is Last to Be Measured It is this possibility which had led us, again and again, to seek the heartbeats and electrocardiograms of many mammals other than man. The whale is the last to be at tempted. In 1952, off the southwest coast of Alaska in Bristol Bay, Dr. Robert L. King, James L. Jenks, Jr., and I succeeded in taking a cardiogram of a beluga, or small white whale. Our patient, only 14 feet long and weighing little more than a ton, had a remarkably slow heart rate. Its pulse beat 12 to 20 times a minute and averaged 15 even when the whale was vigorously pulling us out into the Bering Sea in a small skiff. Still, we had not completed our task. The beluga is pint-sized compared with other ceta ceans. We had proved, however, that an electrocardiogram of a whale could be re corded, something never before accomplished. In 1953 and again in 1954, we scouted for California gray whales off San Diego. Even with a fast Navy boat and later a helicopter, we failed to get close enough. The wary grays would dive whenever we approached. "Try Scammon Lagoon," Dr. Raymond M. Gilmore, of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Serv ice, and Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, advised. "It's the main winter breeding ground of the gray whale herd," Dr. Gilmore said. "You'll have good weather, and the water is shallow. The whales cannot dive very deep." And so, after two years of preparation, we set out to invade the grays' home waters. We found ourselves a congenial, purpose ful crew on our two-day voyage south along the Baja California coast from Los Angeles. Our host and expedition skipper was aircraft manufacturer Donald W. Douglas, an ex perienced sportsman completely at home on the water. With Mr. Douglas were Frederick W. Co nant, senior vice president of the Douglas Company; Charles A. Langlais of San Fran cisco, whom we quickly dubbed "Captain Ahab"; ship's engineer Leo Thomas, and Luther Gift, ship's cook without peer. Our scientific party included Dr. King and Mr. Jenks, president of the Sanborn Com pany, plus a young Sanborn engineer, Paul Levesque, upon whose knowledge of elec tronics and marksmanship with a light line throwing rifle we depended greatly. In addi tion, two National Geographic Society staff members, J. Baylor Roberts and Samuel Mat thews, had joined us. A few days later, when Donald Douglas, Jr., and Donald "Bud" Gardiner of the Doug las Company flew to Scammon Lagoon, our crew was complete. We totaled 13, but no one thought the number ominous. Dorado, an 83-foot twin diesel craft pro vided by Mr. Douglas, proved a luxurious way to go whaling. Roomy and elaborately equipped with the latest navigation devices, the yacht originally had been a Coast Guard patrol boat. Gray Whales Neared Extinction Twice Making a steady nine knots, we cruised past the purple mountains of Mexico's youngest State, Baja California Norte. The marching peaks and mesas dropped sometimes almost sheer to the sea. Our coastwise course paralleled the migra tion route of the California gray whale. From summer feeding grounds far to the north in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea, this uncom mon species travels 6,000 to 7,000 miles south each winter to the sheltered lagoons and bays indenting the coasts of Baja California.* Dr. Gilmore had told us much about the grays. "They almost became extinct twice in the last hundred years," he had said. "Be tween 1850 and 1890 the bay and shore whalers along the California coast hunted them until the nursery waters were virtually * See "Whales, Giants of the Sea," by Remington Kellogg, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1940.