William West/AFP/Getty Images
Sea Shepherd ship "Bob Barker" is moored in Hobart as it prepares to leave to confront the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean on Dec. 13, 2011.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
A U.S. appeals court has labeled militant conservationist group Sea Shepherd as pirates, and cleared the way for Japanese whalers to pursue legal action against them.
"You don't need a peg leg or an eye patch" to be a pirate, declared chief judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, overturning a lower court's ruling against Japanese whalers, who he said were "researchers."
"When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate," he said.
This was true "no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be," he added in a ruling that dubbed Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson "eccentric."
Sea Shepherd is chasing the Japanese fleet hunting whales off Antarctica, as it has done for years in a bid to prevent the mammals being slaughtered.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research and others are pursuing legal action in the United States, seeking an injunction against their activities on the high seas.
In its ruling Monday, the Ninth Circuit court overturned a US district judge's ruling and allowed the Institute of Cetacean Research to pursue their action against the anti-whaling group.
The plaintiffs "are Japanese researchers who hunt whales in the Southern Ocean," which is regulated by an international convention, of which the United States and Japan are signatories, it noted.
The convention "authorizes whale hunting when conducted in compliance with a research permit issued by a signatory," said the ruling.
"Cetacean has such a permit from Japan. Nonetheless, it has been hounded on the high seas for years by a group calling itself Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its eccentric founder, Paul Watson."
It concluded: "The activities that Cetacean alleges Sea Shepherd has engaged in are clear instances of violent acts for private ends, the very embodiment of piracy. The district court erred in dismissing Cetacean's piracy claims."
The appeals court also ruled the case should be transferred to another district judge.
"The district judge's numerous, serious and obvious errors identified in our opinion raise doubts as to whether he will be perceived as impartial in presiding over this high-profile case.
"The appearance of justice would be served if the case were transferred to another district judge, drawn at random, and we so order in accordance with the standing orders of the Western District of Washington," it said.
Japan claims it conducts vital scientific research using a loophole in an international whaling ban agreed at the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but makes no secret that the mammals ultimately end up on dinner plates.
Japan defends whaling as a tradition and accuses Western critics of disrespecting its culture. Norway and Iceland are the only nations that hunt whales in open defiance of a 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling.
"I don't think there will be any kind of an end for whaling by Japan," Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told AFP in an exclusive interview. "Whaling has long been part of traditional Japanese culture, so I just would like to say, 'Please understand this is our culture'."