In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Kirk & Co. are enroute to Earth in a stolen Klingon bird-of-prey to surrender themselves to Federation authorities following their varied assortment of charges — assaulting Federation personnel, stealing Starfleet property, and then blowing up Starfleet property: aka, the USS Enterprise — when a giant probe of unknown origins arrives in orbit of this lovely planet and begins probing (that’s what probes do: they probe) the oceans with a weird transmission that has the side effect of boiling the planet’s water off, thereby killing everyone around. Recently resurrected from the dead Spock figures out the probe is trying to communicate with humpback whales, and so Kirk, Spock, McCoy and everybody else go back in time to early 1980s San Francisco to find some humpback whales to “time transplant” to the future. (Presumably in the hope that the whales will say, “Hey, probe, lay off – it’s cool, we’re here! There’s only two of us, and we’re having one baby, so it’s not like we’re going to be viable survivors, but we’re here now and would rather not be boiled off, so please stop it with your probing” and not “Dude! These motherfuckers drove us to fucking extinction! KILL THEM ALL!”)
Anyway, so a movie about the dangers of driving whales to extinction becomes super relevant because it turns out — wait for it — that humpback whales might, possibly, be “migratory astronomers”:
An eight-year project that tracked humpback whale migrations by satellite shows the huge mammals follow uncannily straight paths for weeks at a time.
The results suggest a single migratory mechanism isn’t responsible. Instead, humpbacks may use a combination of the sun’s position, Earth’s magnetism and even star maps to guide their 10,000-mile journeys.
To better understand humpback migrations, Horton’s colleagues embedded satellite tags in seven South Atlantic and nine South Pacific whales from 2003 through 2010.
Each tag contained a battery-operated transponder that beamed its location to the researchers. The tags lasted from four weeks to seven months before falling out; altogether, they provided one of the most detailed sets of long-term migratory data for humpbacks ever collected.
Decades of research on long-range animal migrations has identified geomagnetic and sun-tracking mechanisms, but that work focuses primarily on birds. Humpbacks don’t seem to rely on either method alone.
Earth’s magnetism varies too widely to explain the whales’ arrow-straight patterns, and solar navigation requires frames of reference that water doesn’t often provide. “The open ocean is an endless horizon of blue,” Horton said.
Horton suspects humpbacks rely on both mechanisms, and perhaps the position of the moon or stars. His team is preparing to submit a second study on reference frames in marine mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. After publishing that work, Horton hopes to further investigate the humpbacks’ abilities.
I just think it’s really cool that humpback whales — apparently long in communication with some alien species, according to Trek — actually really do have a connection to the stars. This is super cool for dorks like me who are deep enough into Trek to know that, in The Next Generation, whales are actually aboard the Enterprise to help with navigation. (Totally true).