Researcher captures striking Antarctic video of minke whale

Above, a video grab shows a minke whale glide under the ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. (Regina Eisert/Anthony Powell /University of Canterbury via AP)
Updated 21 March 2018
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Researcher captures striking Antarctic video of minke whale

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Marine mammal expert Dr. Regina Eisert thought minke whales were a little boring until she captured some striking footage of one swimming underwater near Antarctica. Now she thinks they’re beautiful.
Eisert said the whales look similar from the surface but she gained a new appreciation for their individuality after seeing the markings on one up close. She said her team got the underwater video by luck. They’d planned to film underwater for two weeks but managed to get just 90 minutes of footage before running into technical problems.
A researcher at the University of Canterbury, Eisert said they were in Antarctica earlier this year mainly to research orcas in the Ross Sea. But she said their observations of minke whales could shed new light on their feeding patterns.
“Baleen whales are an important part of the ecosystem but they’re grossly understudied,” she said.
The conventional thinking has been that minke whales mainly chase krill, Eisert said. But she couldn’t see any krill where the whales were swimming, and so she thinks they may have been chasing small schools of fish.
She hopes they will be able to find out more about what the whales eat after taking a tiny amount of skin and blubber from the minke whales using a modified tranquilizer gun.
Eisert and her team got their footage after being dropped by helicopter on sea ice not far from two research stations, New Zealand’s Scott Base and the American base McMurdo Station. The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star had earlier cut a channel through the ice to allow the stations to be resupplied, which Eisert said also provided a kind of highway for the whales.
She said there had been very little study of minke whales in the Ross Sea region, despite there being over 100,000 in the area. The cost and difficulty of studying them in such a remote and inhospitable place had been a deterrent, she said.
Eisert’s research, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts, will examine the effect of a new marine protected area on the Ross Sea ecosystem.


The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.